We left the shed and headed east. Everyone was very impressed I knew which direction east was, but I told them how I found out, quickly lowering their expectations.
I could have let them believe I had an innate ability to know where I was going, but then they might have started relying on me to tell them what to do. Some people like that sort of thing—being looked up to, asked their opinion, admired. Best way to make yourself look an idiot, in my experience.
We quickly came to the fields of wheat Kizwat had mentioned, ringed by a wooden fence. On the way into town, Grayson had made it clear fields were to be walked around, not through. Apparently, only in movies is it considered acceptable to run through a field trampling all the crops.
It meant it would take us longer to get to the other side, but we needed the time to get used to the slings.
The person who had most problems was Flossie. She would get it whizzing around her head and then be unable to get it to stop. She would try to fling the stone out, but after failing a couple of times and nearly ‘lamping’ herself (as she put it), she would start squealing and try to run away from the strap whirling overhead, even though it was attached to her hand.
Or she would release the whole thing, sending the sling flying off into the distance. And then we’d spend ten minutes looking for it in the undergrowth.
Everyone else soon got the hang of getting the pebbles to shoot out, if not the ability to control where they went. It didn’t matter where you stood, you were in the firing line. In fact the safest place seemed to be directly in front of whoever was shooting.
Still, the little stones did ricochet off the fence posts with enough force to suggest they’d do some serious damage if they ever hit flesh and blood.
We weren’t very good, but the challenge of learning a new skill was quite entertaining. Even Flossie eagerly tried again after each failed attempt. The only person who didn’t appear to be enjoying the training session was Claire. She wasn’t that bad, managing to get the sling to work most of the time—although she did smack herself in the leg ocassionally (as we all did)—but her face indicated she really didn’t want to be doing this. Or possibly it was the thought of what we planned to do with our new skill.
“You know,” I said, “even if you don’t want to kill any animals, you should still learn how to use that thing properly. For self-defence.”
The others were all spread out. We needed to keep a decent distance between us to avoid smacking each other on the arms with wayward spinning (something we learned the hard way). Claire had taken to strolling along, whipping her empty sling against her palm.
“Why?” she said, like a surly teenager. “What good will it do against an ogre?”
“It isn’t just monsters and beasts you have to watch out for. This is a primitive society and you’re a girl. I don’t know what it’s like for women here, but I’m pretty sure there are men who treat them like crap and force them to do things they don’t want to do.”
Somehow I found myself talking about something I wasn’t very comfortable with, and trying my best to avoid using certain words.
“Yeah, well I doubt I’ll have to worry about that.”
I stopped and looked at her. She stopped and looked right back at me. She had a thin face, but very clear skin. Her eyes were a pale grey, which was unusual, and her hair was straight and long, a mixture of brown and dark blonde streaks. The nose, of course, was unmissable. Not crooked, just large with flared out nostrils. She wasn’t pretty, but she wasn’t a gargoyle either.
“Are you fishing for a compliment?” I asked her.
“No. What are you talking about?”
We had entered some kind of race to see who could sound more annoyed.
“You’d be happier if men considered you worth raping, would you?” She’d made me use that word, which annoyed me even more. “Because unless you have a detachable vagina and you left it back home, it’s as likely to happen to you as anyone else.”
“Fuck you. That’s not what I’m saying.” We were about even on the annoy-o-meter. “I don’t even know why you’re bringing this up. It’s horrible. Not all guys are like that.”
“No, not all guys. But enough of them so that you should be careful and learn to take care of yourself. You can’t rely on us to come save you if some evil bastard drags you into the bushes. This is like a third world country. Not the ones where you go on holiday and get beautiful silk scarves for super cheap. I mean the ones where they have child soldiers and genocides and drug cartels running towns. And you know what all those sorts of places have in common? They treat their women like shit.”
The others had started to walk towards us, probably thinking we’d stopped to have some kind of meeting.
“What are you talking about?” Claire raged. “How is this place like that?” She opened her arms wide indicating the world around us; the golden wheat swaying in the breeze, the forest trees in the distance dappled with sunlight, the fluffy clouds innocently floating by. It certainly didn’t seem to be a place full of horror and despair. “You don’t know anything. You’re just trying to scare me so I’ll do what you say, learn to hit things with this stupid contraption.”
She spun the sling around her finger, first one way then the other.
“Claire,” I retorted with no intention of backing down, although I really have no idea why it had become such a big deal to me, “this is a world where you have to kill to survive. It’s not much of a leap from using violence to get the things you need, to using violence to get the things you want. And for a lot of men, one of those ‘things’ is women. Why not? What’s anyone going to do about it? Call the police?”
The other three were now standing around us, looking a miffed by the conversation they’d walked into.
“So you’re saying I should watch out for all guys, including the three of you? Once you get used to using violence to kill small animals, you might decide to use it to get some action in the bedroom?” She wiggled her hips suggestively, playing up to the audience, her face twisted with sarcasm.
“Maybe,” I said calmly, refusing to rise to her baiting. “I don’t think any of us three is the type, but who knows? Same with the rest of the guys that came here with us. Any of them could turn out to be a massive douchebag.”
“And yet you sent that girl back to the biggest douchebags of all.”
She was talking about Jenny, and I was sort of pleased she thought of Golden Boy and his cronies as douchebags, but she had a point. If she liked one of those guys and hooked up with him, it would probably keep her safe. But if she rejected them all, things might get iffy. At best she might get thrown out of the group. At worst… I really didn’t want to think about it.
Flossie took my pause for thought as an opportunity to jump in front of Claire with her arms spread out, like a referee stopping a boxing match.
“Alright, that’s enough. We got things to do, can’t be chatting all day. Ah get what you’re saying, Colin. We just got to be careful. Even back home, there’s some places you don’t go at night by yourself. Same thing, right? Right, Claire?”
“Sure,” said Claire. “Whatever.” She turned to Maurice and Dudley, both of whom looked terrified by the thought they might be asked to share their thoughts on the matter. “I just want you two to know I don’t think you’d do anything like that. I think you’re both really great guys.” Then she turned back to me. “You, I’m not so sure about.”
Even though she was just being spiteful and didn’t really mean it (I hope), it still stung to hear her say that. She flinched a little. I think she could see she had hurt me and perhaps she thought she had gone too far. Or maybe I was just imagining it.
“Don’t worry,” I said, rather more viciously than I intended. “I won’t lay a finger on you. Ever.”
The flash of pain in her eyes told me I had scored a direct hit, and I immediately regretted what I said, or at least the way I had put it.
“In any case,” I continued, trying to dig my way out of the hole I’d jumped into, “I’m pretty sure the only way I’ll get laid in this place is if one of those douchebags sticks me on their dick and uses me as a condom.”
There was a moment of silence and then Maurice burst out laughing, followed by the others, including Claire. I’m not sure it was that funny a joke, but the tension needed to be broken and apparently the idea of me being sexually assaulted was something everyone could have a good laugh about.
Author’s Note: I would welcome any comments on the conversation here. I don’t mean whether you agree with Colin or Claire (although I’d be happy to hear your views on that, too), what I’m asking is do you think the subject matter was inappropriate? The reason I started this story was to write a more realistic version of what it would be like to find yourself in this kind of world and I think these sorts of things would be an issue for them, but I don’t want to be controversial just for the sake of it, or make people feel uncomfortable when reading. Did I handle it okay or did it put you off? Interesting or disturbing? I would appreciate the chance to learn from your feedback. Cheers.