Stranger

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The spicy scent filled the room, bringing with it all of the memories of home without any of the comforts. The chairs were hard instead of cushioned, the wooden table stained with unknown liquids, the green rug threadbare and ripped in places. The metal walls with their reinforced windows glimmered faintly in the firelight, casting their cold reflections across the room.

Even so, it was better than being outside. Danielle leaned her elbows against the table, watching her host as they waited for the tea to finish. She traced one finger across the grained wood surface, trying to remember the last time she had actually sat at a table. Weeks? Months? She looked down at the table, examining a brownish red stain on the surface. Did it really matter?

“So how long have you been travelling?”

Danielle glanced at her host once more, examining his face. He was surprisingly old, his grey hair touched with white. Lines molded his face into something hard—unused to mercy, if she were to guess. But his body was still fit, corded with stringy muscles; but was he someone who fought or ran away?

“Few months, I guess.” She shrugged noncommittally, glancing toward the pot where the tea was steeping, “How long have you been holed up in here?”

The lines around the man’s mouth tightened slightly before he responded, “Few weeks. I’ll have to go out again to get supplies in a few more. I try to limit my exposure as much as possible.”

Danielle nodded slowly, twisting her fingers against one another. He played it smart; that was certain. No wonder he was so old. She examined one of her nails, digging out the dirt from underneath it with another finger.

“Could you not do that at the table, please?”

She shrugged and flicked the dirt at the floor. The old man winced slightly, as if she had slapped him. She leaned forward on her elbows, cradling her chin in her hands, “How did you find this place, anyway? Were you the first one here?”

The man grunted and stood, moving toward the pot over the fire. He stooped, grabbing a cloth from the ground before using it to take hold of the pot and set it on the table, “I should be asking you the same question.”

“If I was the first one here? Obviously I wasn’t.”

“No. How you found this place.”

It was a good question, and she wasn’t about to answer it; at least not truthfully. Danielle shrugged again, waving one hand nonchalantly, “It was day. The sun reflected off some of the metal. I guess I was mainly lucky.”

The old man nodded in turn. He moved away again, grabbing two metal cups from hooks above the fireplace before dipping them into the pot, filling them with the tea. He set one of them in front of Danielle, steaming faintly, “How is it out there?”

Danielle grabbed the cup between her hands, letting it warm her fingers as she stared at the brown liquid. Her eyes flickered briefly toward the reinforced metal door before gazing down once more, “Same as always, I expect. No one wants to be out there. Those with money can afford not to be, but those without…” She trailed off. It didn’t really need to be said, after all. “It’s winter, though. Times are tough.” She paused briefly before continuing, “Thank you for this. It’s been…hard.”

She could feel his gaze on her, sizing her up. She knew what she looked like: dirty, short, thin, bundled up in layers of clothes against the cold. Her brown hair fell in stringy strands around her face; all in all, she knew she looked nothing like a threat.

The silence continued a moment longer before the man spoke, “You can stay here for a while if you need to, but you have to understand that you need to move on eventually. I don’t have enough supplies for two.”

She nodded and then took a sip of her tea, hiding the smile that curved across her lips.

 ____

The old man turned off the lights at 8:30 pm. It was to save electricity, or so he claimed. Danielle suspected that he just wanted a chance to think things over, to analyze the events of that day. After all, she had probably shocked him with her appearance; it wasn’t every day that a girl showed up on your doorstep.

He had helped make up a makeshift bed for her: several blankets piled in one corner of the room. It was relatively comfortable, though the metal floor dug into her back slightly. Above her, the emergency lighting glowed a faint red, illuminating the ceiling.  She began to count the minutes as they ticked by: 9:00, 9:30, 10:00, 10:30. From the other room, she could hear the heavy breathing of the old man. 11:00. His breathing slowed and became even. 11:17. She carefully moved the blankets, rising silently on her bare feet. She suppressed a shiver in the cold air; the old man had turned off the heating as well.

Danielle gently padded across the floor, placing one hand on the metal door that lead into the other room. It was open a crack, probably to make sure that he could hear her if she tried to open the outer door. Paranoid, perhaps, but she could respect that; it’s probably how he had kept alive all these years.

She slipped into the man’s room, pausing as she let her eyes adjust to the darkness. After a moment, she could see the dim outlines of a chest of drawers, some crates. Her eyes flickered toward the darker shape of a bed and the gentle rise and fall of the man’s chest beneath the blankets.

Danielle closed her eyes for a moment before she reached toward her sleeve; her fingers felt the catch, hard against her callouses. Quietly, she slid the knife from its sheathe.

She stepped closer to the bed, making sure to monitor her breathing. She couldn’t afford to have him wake up at this point, not when she was so close. Danielle licked her lips as she stood over him. Then she plunged the dagger into his throat.

There was a gurgling noise. The blankets rustled as he thrashed for a moment. A darker stain spread across her hand as she twisted it home. Then, he lay still.

She wiped the dagger off on the bedspread before sheathing it. Her fingers felt sticky; she’d clean them off later. Danielle padded out of the room and toward the main door of the safe house. She rested her hands on the heavy metal bar that helped lock it. She could just stay inside, keep quiet, keep safe. She wouldn’t have to see anyone else again—at least not for a while.

But that’s not how things worked. Her muscles strained as she heaved the metal bar out of its holder. Then she twisted open the locks that kept the door shut. With a heave, she opened the door, shivering as the freezing air blasted her face.

Danielle waited one minute, then two. Finally, three shapes slid into the room from outside. One of them nodded at her, “Good work, Danny. This should be good for the winter.”

She nodded back, remaining silent as she tried to bask in her success, as she tried to remember that they probably would have died without this place, as she tried to imagine the threat that still lurked outside, as she tried to forget the kindness an old man showed to a young girl.

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