As the lanky ginger boy grinned at him, Cancer found himself unsure what to do. Loneliness ached deep inside his chest and tightened relentlessly. Had his mind been clear enough to think, he might have just shut the door and kept to himself. But between the boy’s seemingly friendly demeanour and the blurred golden brown edges of reality, the only response Cancer could come up with was to move back from the door and let him in.
Cancer grabbed his backpack from the chair by the desk and put it down carefully on the end of the bed, doing his best not to disturb the half rolled joint where he had been sat before. He gestured at the chair, feeling just a little bemused. He couldn’t remember the last time he had willingly invited someone in. The boy wandered in, lowering himself into the seat, taking in his surroundings as he did so. In the couple of days since Cancer had arrived, he had done his best to hide the blood splatters by ripping the curtains down and draping them over a standing lamp in the corner, but it hadn’t hidden all of it. It was an uncomfortable reminder of what was outside the hotel. The pungent scent of smoke and something curiously herbal masked the odour of death and stale sweat. It was a smell that conjured up memories of walking past the ‘cool’ kids smoking on the field during lunch break.
Cancer sat on the bed and returned to rolling his joint, at a loss for what to say. It had definitely been too long since he was around another human being.
“Did the others talk to you earlier?” The boy asked, breaking the silence. Cancer kept his eyes on what he was doing, but they narrowed angrily as he tucked the paper under itself.
“Yeah,” he grunted, flicking a lighter. “They want me out,” smoke furled out from between his teeth as he spoke. That familiar herbal smell drifted outwards, clinging to any surface it found.
“They do mean well,” the boy said, “it’s only ‘cause you kind of held my dad at gunpoint before.” Cancer nodded. So there were others he hadn’t seen. He wondered where they had been hiding. He shrugged.
“We all do what we have to, to survive. I wasn’t really in any position to be thinking about friendly negotiation; I hadn’t had anything to drink in a couple days.” The scorching heat of a Nevada summer had made it a hundred times harder to go without than normal.
“Well, for future reference, if you need anything, if you’re running low on supplies, just ask,” a friendly smile pulled the boy’s lips up at the corners. Cancer almost felt confused. No one he had run into before this had been so generous, and though he was sure the boy’s father and the others in the group that had confronted him wouldn’t be so willing, Cancer’s lips twitched upwards in reply. It was a nice thought, at any rate. He inclined his head in thanks and looked up at last.
“So… Who are you, anyways?” he asked, belatedly realising he hadn’t really been paying attention when the boy had introduced himself before.
“My name is Joe Hartness,” the boy replied, wondering what else to answer the question with, “I’m from England, and it’ll be my seventeenth birthday at the end of the month.”
A bitter laugh welled up inside of Cancer and forced its way out. “I gave up counting days a long time ago.” He had enough of a hard time figuring out what day it was when it was as simple as checking his phone to find out.
“Things will get better,” Joe’s voice was earnest. “They have to. The army will come, or something, and we’ll be okay.” Cancer couldn’t help wondering how long Joe had spent inside the hotel. Sure, there were still plenty of living around - almost too many, these days - but there were also at least the same amount of walking dead shuffling around, or more.
“What if they don’t?” The quiet words slipped out before Cancer could catch them, and he sighed. “I ain’t come across any army camps yet, not even empty ones.” He drew in a long toke and held the smoke in his lungs as long as he could, closing his eyes for a moment, sure that he hadn’t seen even the slightest hint of military assistance.
“Maybe you’ve just been looking in the wrong places?”
Cancer nodded, hoping he was right. “Maybe.” He changed the topic after that, determined not to sour the mood. After being alone for over two months, Cancer suddenly found he didn’t want this gangly ginger intruder to leave.
Cancer looked up, anger flaring deep in his belly as the door burst open, all but kicked down. When he saw who was interrupting, he left the bed in one, well practiced move that had him standing, reaching for his weapons as he rose. His fingers curled around thin air, and he cursed under his breath as he realised his gun was in his backpack.
Joe whirled around to face his parents, “mum, dad?! What’re you doing?”
“C’mon,” his father strode forwards and grabbed his arm, unfazed by the dishevelled, knife wielding man near by, “we’re leaving.”
“Dad, calm down!” Joe protested, pulling back from the hand trying to drag him away. “We were just talking.”
Tension crackled in the air as Mrs Hartness glanced between Cancer and her son anxiously. “Joe, honey, let’s just go.”
Cancer eyed the conflict. If growing up had taught him anything, it was that situations like this rarely ended without someone getting a black eye. Standing his ground the way Joe was never earnt him anything less. “Listen, lady,” he growled, “I ain’t done nothing to hurt your son. He’s old enough to decide who he wants to talk to. Now get the fuck out of my room!” The last few words were shouted, coming out harsher than intended. He just wanted them all to go away now. He’d stayed out of trouble just like they wanted, and it certainly hadn’t been his fault that Joe had visited him.
“Don’t you dare talk to my wife like that,” Mr Hartness snapped back, turning to glower at Cancer.
Jed stepped further into the room, positioning himself precariously between Cancer and Joe’s parents. “Alright, everybody, let’s just calm down, yeah?” He rubbed his beard, calmly assessing the situation. “Clearly Joe hasn’t come to any harm - I think we’ve all jumped the gun a bit here.” His eyes turned to Joe. “Did you come here yourself?”
“Of course I did,” came the scoffed reply, “I’m old enough to make my own decisions; I just wanted to see what all the fuss was about.”
“Well, now we’re leaving,” Mr Hartness said firmly, his voice hard with authority. Joe slumped, resigned under his father’s glare.
“I’m really sorry about this,” Joe muttered, turning back to face Cancer before he was dragged from the room, “it was nice talking to you.” Cancer just nodded, eager for everyone to leave and take the prickly atmosphere with them. Joe’s mother escorted her son out of the room, followed by Jed. Mr Hartness paused, his expression set with anger and determination.
“Don’t you come anywhere near my son,” he warned, leaving the room.
Cancer dropped his hand back down to his side, sliding the knife back into its sheath slowly. Frowning, he threw himself back down on the bed and pulled a map from his bag. It was time to move on.