There was a bag of green bananas hanging from a fence post by VA634. I ripped into one. It was nearly inedible. I felt bad about wasting trail magic, and then annoyed at whomever had left them there. At least banana skins are biodegradable. I threw it into the forest. Which actually turned out to be someone's backyard.
The trail emerged suddenly onto a seemingly unassuming suburban street lined with dilapidated houses, their sad, unkempt exteriors reflecting the equally sad, presumably impoverished lives of their inhabitants. That is, if anyone lived there at all. Several of the houses had crooked for sale signs poking up out of the weeds on their lawns, and a couple were boarded up completely. What a pleasant place.
Bandito wanted or needed to go to the nearby Food Lion to resupply. I didn't, and so sat down beside the trail to wait for him to come back. Bandito left his pack, and ran off towards the grocery store.
I watched an old man in a vintage Chevrolet pickup truck cruise lazily up and down the street. I sat back, listening to the birdsong and the omnipresent buzz of a lawnmower approaching, then receding. Then a man stepped in front of me, his great round head blotting out the sun. He looked sweaty and downtrodden, and I could practically smell the dirt and plaster embedded beneath his fingernails.
"You a hiker?" he asked, wiping his brow.
I looked around. Bandito's backpack was propped against a tree beside me, his trekking poles lay discarded in the grass at my feet. I myself must have looked and smelled horrible. Was I a hiker? Or was I just homeless? It was hard to remember. I think I was a hiker. I nodded.
"I met a hiker the other day, right here," said the man, pointing down. "Nice lookin' young girl from Alaska. Can ya imagine that?"
Yes, actually. I could.
"Yep," continued the man. "She said she walked all the way here! Took her a couple of days, but she got here. All the way from Alaska!"
"Wow," I said stupidly, nodding my head, hoping the man would go away.
"An' she said she was headed to Maine?"
"Well, yeah. That's where the trail goes."
The man let out a low, long whistle. "How long you reckon that'd take her?"
I shook my head.
I shook my head again.
"A month?" he squeaked.
"Probably a lot longer," I sighed.
He whooped, impressed, and slapped his knee.
"Hey, I should bring you a snack, you want a snack? I gave the other hiker a snack. She liked snacks."
"Sure," I said, without thinking.
He smiled and shuffled off into a nearby house. I actually hoped he'd stay inside and forget about me. Or that Bandito would return in the interim so we could get out of there. But no, the man returned shortly with some generic cheese crackers and a bottle of water. I was underwhelmed.
"You want anything else?" asked the man. "Maybe a burger? I could grill you up a burger."
"No, thanks," I said. "I'm a vegetarian."
"I don't eat meat."
"I don't eat meat."
He stared at me blankly, not getting it. Then he shrugged, and lit up again, "Oh! I know! How about some wild beef? It's just so juicy! And I just got it, recent, you gotta try!"
"Well, no. Beef is actually meat, technically speaking? And I don't eat meat," I said.
"Are you sure? It's wild!"
"No, really, I'm good," I assured him, trying to think of what wild beef might be. "Thank you, though."
"Okay," shrugged the man. I don't think he believed me.
I sat there eating my crackers as the man regaled me with stories of the neighborhood's various and numerous tragedies. Some respected community member had died recently, leaving her family in financial ruin, another person had their house repossessed, a lot of families were struggling to get by, the Union won the war of Northern Aggression, etc. Bandito couldn't make it back soon enough.
When Bandito did finally return, he wasn't as lucky as I was at deflecting the man's offers.
"What's wild beef?" asked Bandito, as the man ran inside to grab him a steak.
"Maybe he snuck onto someone's farm and shot a cow?"
Bandito laughed. But not for long. The man returned with a grotesque lump of bloody flesh that Bandito dutifully chewed and swallowed. The pained smile plastered to his face said it all. It was horrible.
I tried not to excoriate Bandito for being too polite for his own good. He's young, after all. He has so much to learn. I didn't feel like piling on.