Old Ma Meg leaned on her hoe, swept damp hair from her eyes, and stared up, straight at the sun. Miserly it was, these days. Barely made her eyes water. Barely touched her little garden. She shook her head and got back to hoeing. That dull red light might be enough, might not. She would find out, was all.
The wind picked up, and a fine gray ash sifted down from the sky. Months, and still it came.
She turned to her wheelbarrow, pulled a rotting tarpaulin from beneath the shovel that kept it from blowing away. She dragged it across the small plot of land, mindful of her plants, then placed a stone on each of the four corners. She nodded as she placed the final stone and stood, sweeping her now ashen hair from her eyes.
She stopped. Someone was watching her.
“Well,” the man drawled. “And who might you be?” He was tall and thin, somewhere in his late thirties. Grungy red hair brushed his shoulders; beard and mustache battled for room on his face. Tattered jeans with a knife stuck through the belt and a worn leather jacket completed the picture. A drifter.
Old Ma Meg tensed, then stilled. Help was a mile away, at the least, and she wasn’t spry these days.
The man stared at her expectantly, leaning on an old fencepost with one hand and shoving the other in a jacket pocket.
“They call me Old Ma Meg,” she said.
The man nodded, pulled the hand from his pocket and swept a gray-splotched kerchief over his forehead. “Didn’t expect to meet anyone out this way. Well, Old Ma Meg. You got water for a thirsty traveler?”
Water. If that was all he was after, she’d eat her tarpaulin. And drifters never asked polite. Still, he hadn’t pulled the knife. Better to play along.
“Traveler, you say.” She beckoned him to follow her. “Where you traveling?” The words came unbidden. She was out of practice, but she’d been brought up right, and that meant you made conversation. Even with strangers. Especially with strangers.
They walked on for a moment in silence, the only sound the soft squelch of their feet on ash and soil. Finally, “Nowhere important,” the man said, waving a hand vaguely. “Not to you.”
That was no way to make conversation. She stopped, and so did he. She turned, looked him in the eye. “Son, a little politeness never hurt anybody. Let’s start again. I said, ‘where you traveling?'”
The man glared, gripped the handle of his knife. His mouth curled sideways.
Well, and he could sneer all he wanted, it wouldn’t get him any water. Old Ma Meg held her gaze rock-steady.
His frown deepened, then he broke into a rough laugh and looked away, up at the sun. “Politeness. All right. I get why they call you ‘Old Ma.'”
She turned and continued along the path, the man right beside her.
They walked in silence for a few more steps. Then, “San Francisco,” the man said.
“Long way to San Francisco,” she said quietly. “On foot. Won’t be a whole lot to see once you get there.”
“I have family there.”
“Had family there.” The words came out harsher than she intended. She could’ve got her daughter and two grandchildren out of Houston, before things got bad. If she’d thought. If anyone had thought. Big city like that, not much chance now. Not much chance at all.
“Have,” he said firmly.
Disbelief must have still showed in her expression. He balled his hands into fists. For a moment she thought he might hit her after all, but instead he blew out a breath and shoved his hands back in his pockets. “Why bother with that garden? Not enough light or clean water for it, and ash is bound to get in whatever you do.”
“Maybe,” said Old Ma Meg. “You don’t know that.”
“Exactly.” He shrugged. “Might be there’s no chance, but we got to try anyway. What else are we here for?”
Old Ma Meg nodded, and pursed her lips, and thought.
She led him to the well.
Old Ma Meg leaned on her hoe, looked down at her little garden. Leaves browning at the edges, ground cracked and dry, small deposits of ash that had made it past her tarpaulin. But everywhere, whispers of green.
Might be the drifter spoke sense.
She would find out, was all.