Chapter 1: Prologue
As soon as I could walk, I was made to filter aqua cola with the other young children, who were usually too sick or young to do anything more. Our job was sacred- if we didn’t strain the water well enough, the drink became like sandpaper and ruined the throat. It was dangerous work, too. Every so often, when aqua cola was delivered from the Citadel, we were forced to move from tent to tent in order to avoid getting caught with others’ stolen jugs and bowls. If we weren’t fast enough with the stolen goods, well, we’d deserve the broken bones we got.
It was dreadful stuff, aqua cola, made people mad. It was not uncommon to have to run for cover from fists and knees when aqua cola was concerned. Jubilation only came with the sound of screams. Life was good if you could hear cries that didn’t belong to you.
By the time I reached 2000 days, I was shine at running and even shinier at stealing. One had to be, when amongst the Wretched. When you were around the same people for long enough, they caught on to you, especially when they caught you rooting around their ration and water portions more than once. Besides, it wasn’t exactly as if the Wretched had much to spare. When something went missing, all eyes fell on me.
Maude swiftly decided, after I had suffered a swollen jaw from a particularly nasty wretch called Jericho, that she would have to find a better use for me. Back then, she was swift and quicker than anyone I had met. Not very strong and not so good at deals- always too nice and kind and gentle when it came to others- but she got enough to feed a hungry little rodent like me enough to keep me from starving. I was still young, when I started working with her, but I was quick and eager to be useful. Maude was a baby-catcher for a living, and though the work was messy, it was nice to be able to have an excuse to stay out of the sun for a few hours.
There weren’t many babies born to the Wretched- folks weren’t much interested in fucking when they could barely scrounge together enough aqua cola to get through the days- but when they were, it wasn’t exactly a celebratory event. More mouths to feed were a hassle. When women couldn’t pay us, they sometimes offered us their dead pups for food, but Maude had a moral compass about that sort of thing and never accepted, something I could never understand. At night, when I smelled meat in the air and heard jovial laughter, I got sour. Dead people were meat, too, and leaving them to the worms was nothing more than a devastating waste.
Regardless of what women did with them afterwards, I was not allowed to bargain until I had pulled my weight. Maude had me and two other women with her helping with the births, and they always got first pickings of whatever was gifted to them as payment. It made me bitter, but it made sense. All I really did was warm up petroleum jelly and cut the cord if Maude was too distracted. I usually got scraps, but I comforted myself in the thought that they were my scraps. Little pieces of cloth or dried meat or sips of aqua cola made me beam.
When I hit 3000 days, I had begun actually delivering pups. I became as good as Maude by the time another 3000 days had passed. People started requesting me; I delivered their pups and ate their food. It was a good deal. I relished in my usefulness.
Then the Immortan fell.
Chapter 2: Bird Bites
My main character finally has a name!
Hello, all. Upon some serious reflection on Rush's character and MR as a whole, I have decided that I will slowly be editing and rewriting the chapters of this story. Therefore, I officially welcome you to the new and improved version of MR... MR 2.0? I don't know what this is called. I do sincerely hope you enjoy it, though!
The sun hadn’t yet started to bake the earth when Maude and I rose from the sand to pay tribute. It was already a killer of a day, that much I could tell. It was disgusting, and the stars hadn’t even yet fully faded from the lightening sky.
I tasted sand. The tarp beneath my ribs must have shifted in the night, because I could feel that my teeth and lips were coated in the nastiness of the dead ground. My bones ached, too. They always did. Rising every morning from the grave was bound to do something to your innards.
I sat up wearily on my elbow and winced through the pains of sunrise. Time was always blurry and difficult to pin down when you were in pain, or sick, or hungry, or thirsty. Even pulling myself out of the hole in the ground I had called bed seemed a challenge, even though it was only a few inches deep.
My body shook and seized up and the black tarp beneath me crackled as I clawed my way out of bed. I was sure I felt my nails breaking and peeling off as I grappled for security in the dirt, but I knew it was just my head playing tricks. A dehydrated head was ever the trickster. I needed some cola.
Maude was nowhere to be found. Her stuff, a bag of dirty towels, bowls and other tools, was still at its spot by the tent flaps. It wasn’t yet prayer time, and I couldn’t hear her grumbling and emptying her bladder nearby. The old broad had wandered off again.
I coughed out a sigh past the sand in my throat and got to my feet, slowly. Grains of the dirt were rushing down my skirts. My whole left side was covered in sand. Why did everything have to start so badly on such a bitter morning?
I shook out my hair and patted myself down. Pat, ouch. Pat, ouch. My screaming muscles did not appreciate the shake down, but I didn’t give myself the option to cry about it. Work and the thought of cola kept me sane.
I grabbed an empty pail and stepped outside. It was still cool enough to walk about without my boots.
The world was still asleep, for the most part, but I could hear early mutterings and the sound of Wax heartily wailing for his morning meal.
Wax was only a few months old, but he was a good boy. I saw him often. It wasn’t like there were many other live pups to care for, anyhow. If he was lucky, he’d get sent up the Lift before his mother ran out of milk or died. The Wives hadn’t changed that, at least, and I couldn’t blame them. There would have been too much unrest if they had dared take that one right to helping our children away from us. Just because we had grown up suffering didn’t mean our children had to settle for the same crisping existence under the blue sky that we did. They deserved the protection of the paint.
If his mother decided to keep him, and he got too greedy, well... long pig dinner for his family eventually, I suppose.
Wax’s hungry cries were quieted soon enough, and the only sound left behind was Maude’s nearby huffing and puffing. Even the near-dark, I could find her. I knew where she was at.
She was standing by the Lift, which still hadn’t fallen for the first time that day, forming a one-person line, chipped bowl clutched tightly in her boney hand. Even in her old age, her tall and lanky shape paced, hunched. Her hair was still in its night braid. She was shivering.
I held my breath as I approached. She could get nasty, when she was like this.
“...hey, Mumma,” I said. “Hungry?”
She paused and glanced at me, licked her toothless lips. She was only half-there. But I knew she saw me.
“...why’re they takin’ so fuckin’ long?! Did they forget?! We’re still down here!”
Maude shouted at the towers above her, eyes having gone fully milky and feral. They were reflective in the relative dark. They scared me.
“Mum... Not sunrise yet. You’ll catch your death out here. Please. Let’s go back to our spot. We’ll come back later.”
I tried to take her hand. I tried to be gentle... I got nothing but her wrath.
She backhanded me solidly with her free hand, and with my body still so weak from sleep, I fell without much of an attempt at all. The pan I had taken with me, perhaps in hopes of showing her that no one had yet collected their portions, flew out of my hand and skidded loudly across the dirt. Her knuckles surely left marks in my face. Fuck. My poor Mumma.
There was rabid silence for a few moments, and I didn’t see the moment her eyes filled with full recognition, but I heard her speak in her old voice.
“...oh... Rushy... baby... sweetheart... oh...”
She shuffled in her spot for a few moments, but soon, her hands were on my arms, and she slid her hand behind the back of my neck.
She cradled my face to her collarbone and rocked me, apologizing, over and over. She stroked my sandy hair and kissed my scalp, rubbed my back until the tears I hadn’t realized had begun leaking out of me abruptly stopped.
The sun warmed us at is rose, but I felt ugly-cold. I wanted to go home.
Maude stayed behind to fetch rations, and I stumbled home alone, against the groggy crowds. All of them looked like Maude- old, scared, skinny, confused. Folks shoved at me when I touched them. Someone nasty grabbed a fistful of my hair and yanked it just to see me fall.
I was supposed to be respected. But with no children to be delivered, I was just a corpse to kick around.
Furiosa was supposed to make things better. She promised. She gave us food and cola but things didn’t really change.
Furiosa seemed nothing less than a terrifying legend, in the very beginning, as the Immortan was when he first came to rule. Rumours spread regarding her return from Valhalla on the Fury Road- stabbed in the lungs, they said, stopped breathing, saw the Gates and spat on the bars! The return of the Wives would have meant nothing, if it was the Immortan that had gone after them. They were just things, then. Even after they returned from the Wasteland, they were still things. They didn’t know anything about anything, and it bothered me something fierce to think that they got ownership over everything when all they managed to do was survive.
I crawled back into the tent just before the sun began to burn. I wanted to go back to sleep, but I had morning prayers to do.
I was cheating by performing the prayers inside, when I should have really been out, facing the rising sun. Hopefully, the Mother would accept my false prayers, today. I wasn’t feeling all too well. I didn’t want to risk sun stroke.
Oh, Holy Mother, by the grace of Your goodness, protect me and the children of Man from a day of further destruction and misery. Save us from ourselves. Put food in our mouths and cola in our throats. Make our selfish hearts beat another day. We apologize for our sins. We apologize. We apologize. Live forever in your Sacred Lands and accept us when our times come. We apologize.
Maude interrupted me mid-prayer with food. Delicious roasty food... I pretend-finished my prayers. I had surely apologized enough for my daily sins, hadn’t I?
Maude was silent. She had a full plate of meat bits and crispy skin... she wouldn’t be comfortable eating that, but she knew it was my favourite.
She took a seat across from me and wiped her salivating mouth with the back of her hand. This would be rough for her, I knew so.
I took my spare pail from under the bowl of spoils, picked out the best-looking pieces of meat, and awkwardly began mashing them up for her between my soft fingers.
“Y’don’t have t’do that, sweetheart,” Maude said, but I shook my head when she placed her dark hand over mine.
“’s alright. I don’t mind.”
I made up her meal for her, picked out the little bones, tossed out the suspicious bits. My usually clever fingers were clumsy. I didn’t have much experience with this type of meat. It must have been something other than lizard or snake... A little black tuft of fluff amid the barely cooked meat clued me into the origin of our breakfast. Crow. The hunters up in the War Towers were surely getting cocky.
The discovery of the feather turned me off to the meal. Lately, I had less and less of an appetite, especially with so many curiosities coming down the Lift. Maybe they were lacing it... it was something Joe might have done.
Maude tried to convince me to eat. Tried and tried and tried. But when I didn’t she just wrapped the meat up in a little length of spare cloth and tucked it into my work bag.
“You goin’ to go up, today?”
My stomach dropped. I knew that question was coming. It had been asked for weeks, now.
I rolled over towards her in the sand, huffing and fanning myself absently with the back of my hand. I was already irritated, especially with my empty stomach.
“With no teeth, you sure know how to flap those fuckin’ lips, don’t ya?” I noted, and Maude’s shrill motor of a giggle coughed up her lungs.
I hate that she laughed like that. I was trying to be nasty, but I suppose being so little compared to her never got my point across. I hated being so small.
She bared her dark gums in a smile, her eyes disappearing behind the folds of her wrinkles. I think Maude might have been pretty, once; she had high cheekbones and thick hair, and she might have even had good teeth, too.
She told so many stories about the Before Time, especially about her flings. She always talked about one man, a doctor. How she’d go out with him and wear her best clothes and shortest skirts. How it didn’t work out but how she always wished that it had. Yes, she must have been very beautiful.
Now, though, in her old age, her hair was falling out; she drooled hard when she wasn’t paying attention. A real waste of aqua cola, I called it.
“They’d take y’, y’know. M’sure you could give Organic a run for his money.”
Maude’s Before-Time expressions always left me a little baffled. Money was gone, how could you run for it? I shook my head absently.
“Whether or not you like’m, he’s still there, isn’t he? The Wives would’ve gotten rid of’m, if he didn’t pull his weight. Made’m maggot food ‘r something. Besides... I couldn’t leave. Y’know I couldn’t. Who’d watch ya?”
A drop of saliva carved its way down Maude’s dark skin from the corner of her full, dry mouth. She closed her eyes and sighed, ignoring my question. She was lost in thought.
“I could go for maggots, right about now…”
“You could always go for maggots,” I said, smiling a little because, yeah, they did sound good, nice and juicy, especially compared to this nasty bird food.
“’bet if you were the Citadel’s head baby-catcher, they’d feed you maggots every day. Crickets, too! You could send me some,” Maude said, slowly rising to her old knees.
“You’d jus’ suck and suck on’m ‘til they get soft, what chompers have you got for insects? Someone’d steal them before you even got through a half-dozen,” I said, sitting up and offering her my shoulder to use as a crutch.
I could feel the strong bones in her hands work to raise her up. Despite her aches and pains, that old engine of a woman still hummed with rusted life.
“You’re soft,” she insisted. “You’d share.”
I got up after her and moved in a lumbering crouch in the small interior of the patchwork tent, always counting, always checking. With only Maude and me left, there was more food and space, but less folks on watch. I was always counting jerky strips and loose cloth and canteens like mad, almost as often as I counted missing fingers and toes on pups.
“You should be the one goin’ up on the Lift,” I said. “They’d take care of the Big Momma Pup-Catcher. Well... better than I take care o’ ya, anyways.”
Maude seemingly contemplated the thought for a moment, but she dismissed the idea with a blustering of her lips.
“Nah, nah, gettin’ too shaky. Girls don’t like that, ‘less they’re gettin’ a good fucking. You’ve got the hands for this work, girly.”
I turned my attention to my distracted hands, which were busily folding away some spare headscarves. The garden gloves I bore in the heat were cumbersome, but necessary- soft hands and short nails made for comfortable catches, or so Maude preached.
I wiped my sweaty upper lip with my bare forearm. Soft hands were good for two things: midwifery and hand jobs. If I went up to the Citadel, I might be performing both.
“…we’ve lived fine down here forever,” I reasoned, mindlessly tying my ratty hair up and out of my face with the aid of a square length of red fabric, Maude’s favourite, the one I hardly ever took off.
“How good can it be, up there, really? Folks thought it was shine when the Immortan was around, and all they got from the deal was a bit of shade. Surely, with all the food the Wives’re handin’ out, there’ll be pups again, work again...”
A gnarled hand yanked me firmly away from my busywork before I could even finish my thought. For such an old girl, Maude could pull when she wanted too. The yellowy-whites of her eyes popped hard against her dark skin, and her tight kinks of long, white hair bounced into her face despite her having tied it back.
“You listenin’ right, girly?!” she shouted, and I knew it wasn’t because of hearing loss; I cringed and struggled against her grip. She leaned in closer and I smelled the rot on her tongue.
She wasn’t forgetting, now. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was scaring me on purpose.
“If those lil’ girls up there can overthrow an entire Valhalla-damned empire with nothin’ more than a truck an’ a couple o’ guns, then you, you rusted bitch, can find a fuckin’ job in that there glorified waterin’ hole! Did you hear?!”
My eyes began watering again. Maude always said I cried too much. I whimpered and tried to shove her hand away, but it just gave her incentive to dig in harder.
“Fuck, yes!” I barked, my hands bearing hard against her hips and shoving her old body down into the sand.
She crumpled like a pile of bones, her thin body crashing into a row of dry canteens, which clattered together in a storm of tin. I didn’t help her stand. I heard her get up and mutter something cryptically curse-like, but she left me in my peace.
I didn’t like being violent with her, but in her stubbornly advancing age, she was getting less and less easy to reason with. Maude stifled me something horrid, with all her mothering, as if I was still at her tit. At almost 8500 days, her orders and scoldings were getting a wee bit too repetitive for my liking.
I still didn’t want to go. I want my Mumma around. Could anyone blame me for wanting to stay close? Pa might have, if he was still around but... well, he had been dead for a while. And I refused to listen to the likes of ghosts.
I didn’t notice Maude coming up behind me and touching me, at first; the pungent scent of petroleum jelly hit my nostrils before her soft skin did. Her hands lovingly brushed the back of my head.
“…you look like no better than tumbleweed with your hair like this. You wan’ m’ t’fix?”
I wanted to huff and pull away, as I might have as a babe, but I simply didn’t respond. She took my silence as a yes.
As she removed the band and refolded it to make the torn edges look a bit neater. Maude’s hands worked quickly, and before long, my entire head of stringy, brown-black hair had been tucked up and away from my face. The sheer tightness of the fabric band made my skin ache, but it felt nice, secure. I didn’t know what I looked like, but Maude always insisted I was prettier than her. I couldn’t be sure. Most things that might have been shiny once were rusted in the Wasteland.
Her silky fingers squeezed my shoulders. I felt her lips kiss my cheek.
“Come now. Gonna go see your Papa. Take your things.”
I winced and rubbed my eyes.
“But I don’t...”
“I know ya don’t wanna go. No complainin’. Bring yer things.”
I sat there for a few moments, waited for Maude to leave, expected her to come back when the heat got too bad... but when she didn’t, I groaned out loud and tugged on my sandy boots. Maude used to wear them, but her soles got so tough towards the end of her life that she considered trading them before deciding I needed them more. They were my favourite, with steel in the toe and everything; no laces were needed, I made them work with wrapping a length of twine around each ankle to keep them tight. Practical and quick, as Maude liked most things.
While I rose up, I slung my medicine bag over my shoulder. I used to wear a utility belt, low on my hips, filled with all my bandages and jellies and soft wraps for the newborns, but they were often too easy to steal from for my taste. Though the bag was overall heavier and a drag to carry about, it was safer and harder to snatch off my back. The only remainder of my older pouches was a tiny pack that I strapped to my thigh. In there, my red ochre powder- useless, but pretty. My own personal war paint.
I stumbled under the weight of my bag to meet Maude outside. The neighborhood was lively now, folks were shouting and wandering about. Folks smiled more, with full bellies. It was almost pleasant, even though the scent of sweat was still present on the breeze.
Maude didn’t bother packing up the tent or bringing valuables with her as she usually did. Folks were happy and eating. The risks were low. Besides, she and I both knew we wouldn’t be gone long.
The Cemetery was close by. It wasn’t even really a cemetery. Burying anything out here was a dangerous game to be playing. It would be scavenged by animals, or by neighbors desperate enough to eat around rot and share meat with flies.
Maude was greeted by a handful of passersby as we slowly made our way through the alleys of tents. She was famous. Folks loved her.
When they looked at me, they only subtly nodded or did nothing. I hadn’t delivered enough pups to be trusted, even though Wax’s birth had gone alright. They would need to trust me, though. Who else would be delivering pups, soon?
The Cemetery was preserved in the shade between the eastern-most and middle towers. No bodies, no graves, just rocks with symbols carved on them. Those who could write in Before Time languages had full names; those who bothered to count days since the start of the End Times put birth and death dates. Most were drawings.
The Cemetery only began to be put together after Joe’s death. Before that point, any sort of respectful remembrance of the dead was disrupted by his boy soldiers. Now... things were better and worse. At least Joe’s violence allowed for a nice excuse to forget the dead.
Mercedes Man’s rock was small and pressed against a wall. Maude had carved in his name from Before. I had asked her to carve his favourite symbol out- I couldn’t read- but she had refused. He had a lot of enemies. Maude probably just didn’t want his grave desecrated.
A visitor was there with us, another old woman. She was curled around a rather large rock, with multiple lines of words. A family grave.
I attempted to ignore her and kneel to start praying, to get this shit over with, but Maude caught me by the shoulder.
“Hey! Lady!” she called almost hesitantly, but the woman didn’t move. Didn’t even breathe.
Fuck. No, no, no. Not this morning.
I stepped away from Maude to approach the woman. As I approached, the smell of her, a smell I recognized all too well, wafted over me.
I gently shook her arm, but instead of getting yelled at, her body simply tipped towards me.
Her eyes were completely glazed over, and as her head fell, flies and maggots poured out of her mouth and fell in a disgusting, writhing pile at my feet, like a thumping tumour. The remainder of saliva and blood dripped out of her mouth to coat them, like the terrible oils that had coated the bird meat earlier. The woman must have only been dead for a few days, and no one was here looking for her. The maggots were still small, but they would get chubby soon. At least someone was making the best of their short life.
“Oh, Mother!” I hollered, stepping back and covering my eyes in disgust.
The air was suddenly heavy and sour, and it made me nauseous. I bent over my knees and tried not to heave.
Maude was praying behind me, for the dead woman. She would always be better than me. The Mother would have no problem taking her.
I knew what Maude was going to say when she finally let out a sigh and slid her hands beneath my arms to help me up.
I sunk my teeth into my mouth and shook my head in disbelief. I wasn’t ready to go, but this was an undeniable sign. I had no choice. The Mother wanted me to go, lest I become just like the woman... rotting from the inside out.
Maude tugged on my long skirts straight and touched my scarred face. She paved the marks with her thumb; one lining each cheekbone, another straight down my nose, the last a half moon above my upper lip. Pa had insisted, in life, that they were to keep me a little ugly. Ugliness was safe. Maude always joked that they had done nothing to help my case, but regardless, they still reminded me of my parentage.
“You are goin’ t’blow them all away,” she said.
“You could come. They’d find use for you,” I said, but I knew it probably wasn’t true. Maude’s memory wasn’t great anymore, and though the New Citadel accepted most, she would hate taking up space.
“Nah.” Her fingers traced my scars, and made my skin glow gold. “You got your knife?”
“‘Course I got my knife,” I sighed.
“Then you’ll be okay.”
She took her fingers away, leaving my tan skin cool from her touch. As she turned away and back towards my father’s grave, I thought I saw the shine of aqua cola in her eyes, but I ignored it. I didn’t want to cry any more than I had already done.
“I’ll visit y’and Pa. Promise,” I insisted, joining her at the grave site and tracing the symbols that were supposed to represent Mercedes Man’s name, one that had died way before he had.
Maude just chuckled and pat my back, just like she would when I was a child. She was gone again, back in thought. I was just a baby in her eyes, still.
“Nah, Rush,” she said. “Y’won’t.”
Chapter 3: Hail Mary
Rush makes a friend... sort of.
Maude had always insisted that I would amount to ‘great things’, though I believe those were her Before Time sentiments showing. ‘Great things’, she said, were meant for risk-takers. That’s how the Wives broke their chains; that’s how Furiosa made it to the top when she really should have stayed Imperator until she carked it.
On the other hand, I knew risks left folks dead, even if they were necessary. Really, the Wives, Furiosa, they should have become scavenger food. One of the Wives never came back, that much I knew. Joe’s favorite. The one that started it all was the one never to return.
Maude insisted I have a sand bath and trade my personal things for whatever supplies I could. I needed to look alright, she said, ‘first impressions are everything’. She also stuffed me full of whatever dried meat rations we had left, as if that meager food would grow me the inches I lacked and filled out my bony shape.
As I ate, she attempted to find me something better to wear, even though we owned nothing but the clothes on our backs. Regardless, Maude huffed and dug through our piles of tools and scraps.
“Surely, we’ve got somethin’... Can’t have y’goin’ up on the Lift, lookin’ the way y’do,” she grumbled.
“I’m fine. They ain’t expectin’ much,” I said between bites of overly salted lizard.
Maude shook her head and threw her things aside with a disinterested slap. Her empty hands turned to rub her face.
“...I don’t want ‘em thinkin’ you’re street-walkin'.”
“I’ll just tell ‘em I’m not, Maude, Mother almighty... There’re more deaf folks down here than up there.”
Maude glanced my way, and bile rose in my throat.
“Don’t be naïve, child. You’n I both know men don’t care ‘bout nothin’ but their ilk. Keep your eyes open... Goodness, y’worry me when y’say things the way y’do. I raised ya t’be quicker... Talk means nothin’ up there.”
While I fought to finish the rest of my meal, silence engulfing me, Maude moved to retrieve a bowl of mixed, muddy yellow ochre from our temporary alter on the ground. It had been our sacrifice to our Mother Goddess- a little aqua cola for good luck and prosperity.
I watched the unmoving alter while Maude worked at painting my face. Maude always insisted on making a muddy statue of the Mother if we camped in one spot for over a few months. Of course, she wasn’t much of an artist, so the Mother was always strangely featureless, but her lumpy curves gave off the right idea.
The Mother was beautiful, and perfect, and could exert her wrath on anyone she pleased, even non-believers. That was why Joe croaked. Hopefully, I would be able to keep her good favor.
“Will y’watch yourself, girly? Keep that mouth shut and eat your fill?” Maude asked as she dipped her fingers in the pasty ochre, which required some cola but would have to do for now.
“Mum, please,” I sighed. “I’m no pup. I’ll remember t’eat when I’m hungry.”
Maude’s face fell slightly as she sat in front of me to paint my face, suddenly looking much older.
“I-I know, sweetness...” she said, but she seemed unconvinced. Nothing could comfort a mother when a child was out of their arms.
Maude promptly began smothering my face in ochre patterns. Yellow lines followed the hollows of my cheekbones, and from my personal red ochre supply, she covered the scar down my nose and formed a cross-shape on my forehead, which was supposed to be a Before Time symbol for healers. Finally, the mix of both, forming an orange colour, swept across the middle of my bottom lip.
Maude fondly looked at me as she cleaned her hands, and my chest swelled with too many feelings to count. However, her lips kept twisting in a way that I recognized well enough; she had something to say.
I wouldn’t see her ever again. I knew that much. It made me reach my hand out to touch her arm before she could think to start getting up.
“Mum? Y’okay?” I asked, firmly rubbing the leathery skin of her shoulder.
The fact that she didn’t answer initially got my blood pump going. Was this another attack? Her body was tensing up, muscles hopping beneath my palm as she turned away from me for a moment. I recoiled quickly, expecting a blow... but instead, she shook her head and patted down her hair thoughtfully.
“...d’ya remember Lilac?”
I stared at Maude’s eyes, dark but completely focused in mine, and realized she knew very well what she was saying and wanted an answer. Somehow, her persistence made me even more nervous than her occasional violence.
“Yep. Thousand days back or so... she had that breech baby. Miracle birth. She patched the tent for us, ‘cause her cola deal never came through,” I said.
“That’s it. Good, girlie. An’ the name o’her pup?”
“C’mon, I dunno... All I remember was that yellin’ and hollerin’ and blood... Look, whatever you’re tryna get outta this, I’m not getting' it.”
Maude’s face fell, and as her lips pursed, she reached out and pat my knee. She looked as if she was about to crumple in upon herself, like a skeleton so fragile that it couldn’t even bother holding itself up any further.
“Ah... my poor puppy-girl. Will ya do one last favor for ol’Mumma?”
“Mum, if ya want me t’stay...”
“No, no. No squirmin’ outta this one, little worm. S’just a matter o’my deliverance t’the Mother.”
I felt my stomach drop at the very thought of my mother, side by side in the dirt with my father.
“If y’expect me t’go barter for rat poison--”
“Heavens, girl! Don’t wanna die jus’ yet!”
“Then what is it?”
There was that face again. I nearly reached out to catch her, as if her very being was about to turn to ash between my very fingers. She sighed and folded her shaking hands together, almost shamefully turning herself away from me.
“Lilac’s gonna watch over me n’ fetch m’rations ‘til the end o’my time here. Couldn’t live without no one.”
My body relaxed, like hers, but the smile that grew on my face was uncontrollable. One of my great fears, swept away.
“That’s lovely, Mum. Got some company, and a pup t’fuss over! Ain’t that--”
Her teeth grit in her mouth. Suddenly, I was scared. Now, she dared look at me.
“No pup,” she said. “No. The puppy’s goin’ up with you.”
My mouth went dry. Why was I suddenly so thirsty? And why did my head itch? I slipped my fingers under my hair wrap and furiously began scrubbing at my skull. I decided I was going to play naïve and pray something good would come of it.
“W-Well, I could bring her up, deliver her t’whoever’s waitin’, sure.”
“Ain’t no one up there, baby.”
Maude had to collect my hair wrap from the sand, because I didn’t notice when it slid out of my hair from the tugging of my fingers. I didn’t care about the precious length of red fabric anymore.
Was this one of Maude’s forgetful delusions? Was she already so far gone? It couldn’t have been, because everything else she had said, every other word she had uttered, it had made perfect sense. How could she expect me to take care of a child? Why would she bring this upon me? She was cursing me and the pup to a death ridden with pain, away from our mothers! How could I handle a stranger? What did I have that Maude, the best pup-catcher for miles, didn’t? Why couldn’t she watch the kid?
Maude looked young again why I snapped my gaze towards her. Maybe that was because of the blurring of tears in my eyes. Maybe it was because I wanted to remember her at her best.
Her shaky hands raised up, up, up to gently touch my face, stroking my scars. She kissed the tip of my nose and touched foreheads with me, assuring I was paying good attention, now.
“I wouldn’t send ya nowhere if I was certain ya’d fumble. Yer little, but ya got bite. Little scorpion,” she said, sticking a bony finger into my stomach and smiling toothlessly when I couldn’t bare but laugh through my tears.
“I can’t bare it,” I said, scrubbing away my tears. “Some stranger’s kid shouldn’t be with me. Gotta be with their mother.”
Maude pulled away and regarded me with pride and worry, but she seemed to be glad I hadn’t spiralled quite yet.
“Mumma knows best, even if ya think she’s wrong,” Maude said, poking herself now in the bony chest. “Gotta trust Mumma, yeah? Yer a big girl. Gird yer loins and pretty yerself up, now. Got a whole damn stronghold t’make er own jus’ waitin’.”
I kept my eyes open and tried not to cry once more in the time it took for her old legs to straighten out, for her to pull back the curtains, for her to wave me out of the tent.
I tied my sandy head wrap back on, picking it up from where Maude had left it. It was time for me to go.
The Lift seemed a distant familiarity in my mind, though I recalled it more and more as I approached it. I had begun standing there for the last couple hundred days, waiting for rations, but I hadn’t properly ingested the terror I felt for it until I found myself walking towards it with the intention to get on.
Maude and I didn’t speak a word as we walked towards it, towards the line of unfortunate folks who seemed eager to leave the ground. It seemed the closer we got to the Lift, the more things changed. Tents grew larger and more spacious; folks seemed better fed; little green sprouts grew out of the boxes of deep brown dirt. I was so distracted that I didn’t notice the Lift coming down.
The clang of the platform, now free of cars and War Boys, made me jump a little, but I retained my composure. No use looking mediocre on my first day up.
The Lift Guards, despite having received their new instructions to not toss folks like corpses months ago, seemed uncomfortable with so many casually boarding what I assumed they thought was their territory. The Wretched around them, carrying goods or things to trade, didn’t even really notice the burly figures in black. It seemed those brave enough to hop onto the Lift had been tossed before.
I read the faces of those waiting in line.
Familiar tradesmen with annoyed faces, swatting at flies.
Young men with bags of heavy scrap on their backs, eager for cola and trade.
A worried mother, holding a baby.
I recognized her by the hair. Lilac had always had stunning, slick brown hair. Even though it was dirty-whose hair wasn’t down here- it never fell out or tangled very much. I remembered her, after her birth, reaching out for a comb to smooth her hair out and tuck it up. I envied that luxury. However... her one beauty seemed to be failing her now.
Lilac looked physically decrepit, nothing but a corpse, struggling to hold up her young pup. She looked as old as Maude, despite having had her pup just a few years ago. The most distinct change I saw in Lilac was not her lack of hair hygiene, or her aging... it was her arm. Or, rather, the lack of it.
Her arm and a good portion of her shoulder was gone, but somehow, she was still standing, though not by much. The bandages sloppily wrapped around her were stained yellow-red-brown.
The moment I saw those bandages, I knew Maude had made a shit deal.
“Nearly didn’t make it,” Lilac said, her voice nothing but a dry wheeze.
“Can’t hurry these ol’ bones,” Maude said, tenderly touching the woman’s arm and moving in close. “Not young n’ swift no more! Eh? Eh, little lady?”
The little one in Lilac’s arms turned around to grin at Maude and yelp her little laugh. Mother. It wasn’t only Maude. I had been given a shit deal too.
The entirety of the girl’s face above her right eye was being obstructed by a round, hard-looking mass. Something superficial if she was lucky... lumps if she wasn’t. I suppose there was an ulterior motive to sending the little one up with me, then. No one would accept her to work up there, and her and her kid would be goners. But going up with a midwife...? Well. That was a chance. And we were living on calculated chances, down here.
Lilac finally looked at me and weakly grinned. She kissed her babe on the cheek and hobbled in place to turn her little face towards me.
“Look, love. This is Rush!” Lilac said, and the girl smiled again.
“Hi-i-i-i!” drawled the girl.
Her mother put her down without a moment of hesitation. I couldn’t blame her for her swiftness, or the fact that the girl probably already knew who I was before we had ever met. Lilac had been preparing her daughter for this day for a while, it seemed, and she wasn’t about to shed tears for a better future for her young one.
It was all about numbers, in the Wasteland- how much water was left to drink, how many mouths there were to feed, how many bodies left to share or bury.
Me, I was just another number, just like the little pup. It wasn’t my place to let her mother know that it was probably the same up there, too.
I stepped onto the Lift, and Lilac followed suit, placing her child beside me. Now, she decided she wanted to speak to me. She looked me up and down, and encouraged the girl to stand a bit closer to me.
“You’ll take care of her?” she demanded, a bit desperately now.
“Yes,” I said. “Do the same for Maude.”
It was all I could say. Any more and I would have jumped towards Maude and slapped her silly.
She shouldn’t have made this deal. She shouldn’t have done this. She was always too kind, looking out for others. That’s what did her in, in the end. That’s why she would live out the rest of her days with a stranger instead of with her daughter.
My father wouldn’t have done this much.
The Lift creaked to life, causing everyone on board to jerk forward violently. Beside me, the little one stumbled to her knees, but did not cry. A tough little thing, she was, she would be okay. In fact, she shrieked a ‘bye-eye-eye-eye-ye’ at her mother, who couldn’t bear to look anymore and was turning away, towards our tent. Everyone knew where the pup-catcher was, after all.
Maude reached for me as I rose, and I clasped hands with her.
She looked at me, then at the little child, then back at me. She shook her head harshly before firmly grabbing my chin, suddenly passionate, and sticking a finger in my face.
“Don’ let anyone jerk you around like a manual gearshift. You’re an auto-drive, yeah, girly?”
I instinctively yanked my face away and nodded firmly. Don’t cry. Don’t cry, you fucking smeg, don’t you dare. Not when the armless woman didn’t, even though she knew she’d never see her child again.
“’Course. Shiniest auto-drive pup-catcher in the Wasteland, I am.”
“Well, second to me, stupid. Don’t forget that.”
“Shove it, rust-bucket.”
I kept holding and holding and holding until a Lift Guard roughly smacked me on the arm and shook his head. Fine, then. I just nodded goodbye at Maude, and I could still see her when she turned around to hobble away.
Despite not having ever been as high as I was in the air, I felt no vertigo. The breeze, though warm, felt nice against my face, and was slowly drying the thicker splotches of ochre on the curve of my nose. A little hand grabbed my skirts and pulled. Beside me, the little one sucked her thumb and absently swung her meager weight from left to right. I leaned over and, a little shyly, pat her malformed head.
Though the sun blinded me, I insistently kept my eyes open; after all, I was appreciating the view that had blessed the eyes of a fallen god.
Ironically enough, it was sand and flesh that first greeted me upon my first step off the Lift- those around me casually scraped their dirty feet on the stone floor, causing the stone entrance of the Third Tower to be positively riddled with peeled skin and pebbles. The sight made my stomach lurch, which unsettled me. I didn’t usually have the luxury to be squeamish. The little one at my side took initiative and followed suit, scraping the caked dirt off her little feet. She didn’t need to be instructed to follow orders; she was quick, despite her youth.
I dropped low beside her in a crouch, trying initially to reach out and take her hand, but the folks behind me in line groaned and snarled at me to move.
Ahead of me, folks seemed to be being sectioned off by a pair of beautiful, robust women, their forms overflowing with layers of fat. While they were both fully covered in proper work clothes, large pants and dress-like shirts, with their long hair pulled back out of their faces, nothing could hide their stunning forms.
I had never seen anything like them. I was blushing as I was prodded towards them from the back, very suddenly unwilling to speak; instinctively, I grabbed the little girl by the collar of the shirt and half-dragged her towards the women.
I was not fond of children. Newborn pups were simple- past the age of 400 days, they began to get too complicated and greedy. It was when they began talking that they truly became burdens. The girl who I was grasping seemed clever, though. I delighted in the pup-soft skin that I felt grazing my knuckles.
I tried to smile at the voluptuous woman, but my attempt to be friendly was instantly turned down. She simply looked at me over a small, square, black stone in one hand and waved at me with a bit of white rock in her other hand.
“Tradesman? Artisan? Fresh blood?” she asked, her voice severe and scratchy-like, nearly unused.
I was too initially focused on her plump mouth to respond, though after she raised an eyebrow at me, I coughed and straightened my posture.
“Fresh blood. Definitely fresh blood,” I said, and she scribbled something down on her stone.
“Uh... midwife? I catch pups.”
Another scribble. She then pointed to the child beside me.
I furrowed my brows and shook my head. Clearly not. Every woman I had ever seen deliver a pup and live was at least twice my size.
“No,” I said. “Her ma done stuck her on the Lift with me an’ sent her up. Meant t’watch her.”
The woman’s pretty face got suspicious, even though the little pup clearly looked nothing like me. I scoffed at her. How dare she think I had some stranger’s spawn? I dropped to one knee to firmly address the child.
“Did your Ma tell y’why you’re here?” I asked, slowly and as concise as I could make it, staring at the larger woman.
However, when my eyes finally turned to the child, they could not help but fall on her massive deformation. If she did notice my stare, she hid it well; her good eye, a warm brown, was hastily drawing her eyes across the platform, where all manners of folks travelled rapidly from corridor to dark corridor. No one seemed to pay us any mind, which was better for us. I did not want to risk discovering what happened to the newest inhabitants of the Citadel towers once they were divided off into their little groups.
When she took too long to respond to my first question, I huffed and tried again.
“Alright, then, pup. Y’got a name?”
Her eyes lit up with recognition of the phrase, and she grinned toothlessly around her thumb.
“Mary,” she slobbered, reminding me a little too much of Maude to ignore the pang of guilt that hit me in the chest.
A Before-Time name, the name of a goddess, or so I struggled to remember. I nodded in confirmation at her. That name wouldn’t last long, not around here.
The familiar scrape of a canvas boot struck me in the thigh, and I saw Mary’s expression change drastically. She began performing that squirmy, nervous little dance she had displayed on the platform once her mother had left her to her own devices. The woman was getting impatient, and the pup realized it.
“Listen, until we can prove that the kid is yours, you’re going to have to stay with her,” she said.
Oh, fuck that. I was not here to take care of a stranger’s child.
“…how much would ya want for her?” I asked, and her nose curled in confusion.
Her arms crossed defiantly at me. She seemed pissed to see me trying to get the pup off my hands.
“What kind of mother are you? If you want to bargain, go to Bartertown,” she snapped.
“Oh, fuck off! I’m not her mother! Isn’t there somewhere she can go?! I’m here for work!”
“Stop holdin’ up the line, idiot!” a man behind me snapped.
I turned and grimaced at him, and he set his shoulders.
“Could y’take tha’ mediocre face elsewhere, smeg? You’re sourin’ the air,” I snapped, tugging Mary close so that she was pressed against my thigh.
I could tell me was about to swing, but before he could wind up his fist far back enough to hit me properly, the woman’s black board came between us with surprising speed.
“Do not make me send you back down!” she hollered, and I felt Mary sob softly at my leg and curl her little hands into my skirts, whining and demanding to be picked up.
I wanted to snap back, I truly did. But I couldn’t risk getting kicked off. The violent ones went back to the Wretches. I could never face Maude again, not so soon.
I leaned down to scoop up the sobbing pup, and though I struggled holding a pup so large, I manage to lean her against my bony hip.
“...where’m I supposed to go? I can’t work with her,” I said, and the woman sighed and shook her head.
“...if you’re not here to sell or trade and can’t work, then I’ll be forced to move you along. You’ll have a place to sleep and a meal for you and the little one. Please move aside.”
“But I don’t know what to do with--”
“Miss. Step. Aside. You’re not the only one who’s gotten stuck.”
I could only adjust a fussing Mary on my shoulder as I nodded. The Citadel was a huge place, and I knew one kid wouldn’t be hurried away to someone responsible, if at all. Wherever I was going, I was going to be rotting there for a long while.
Mary and I were moved from our own little group of two into a larger group of folks like us, while the rest of the folks were processed through and ushered off. Folks who looked like those I had grown up with, covered in dirt, scratching and mumbling at themselves and others, chatting and complaining loudly about how hot it was. I could quietly agree.The heat of the day was only a little less overbearing than it usually was in the old tent, but with Mary- who was now settling down to try and sleep- clinging to me, I knew I would slowly begin sweating my paint off.
I found myself standing there and leaning against a wall for what seemed like ages. Someone wound up pestering the lovely woman for answers as to why we were stuck here. Apparently, we needed more folks to join our little group before we could move along. Mary was getting heavy. Part of me wanted to complain, but I remembered Maude. Words were nothing but nuisances up here.
It took a while, but eventually, I found out that when things change in the Citadel, they change quickly.
By the time the sun was fading down the horizon and the temperature was beginning to drop, a War Boy, all white paint and scars appeared amid the crowd of tanned browns and dirty clothes. He stared at us from his towering height, casting his hard gaze down on us, scrutinizing, as he swiftly passed us to go speak to the full-figured woman. I was used to the sight of them from my youth, but not many of them lingered in the Third Tower, lest they were the young Drummer-Pups that so religiously banged out beats for war parties and supply runners to drive along to as they left the Citadel.
They regarded each-other and spoke for a while, and the longer he stared at her, the redder his face got as his eyes lingered on her breasts. She smiled at him, and her eyes twinkled as he leaned down to nuzzle his nose against her cheek, leaving a pale mark behind.
Oh. My heart dropped, and I scuffed the floor with my boot, rapidly turning away. Never seen that behavior from a War Boy before, especially not towards a lady.
He approached us regretfully, it seemed, and his expression changed back to one of complete bitterness. He didn’t say a word at us, didn’t seem to want to waste his breath- he just cocked his bald head in one direction and began walking away from the group.
I struggled to collect myself and Mary. I had put my bag down long ago, and Mary was slipping down my side. I tried to gather my things as rapidly as possible, but I had no choice but to take my time.
“Mother-- will you—smeg! Wait, for fuck’s sake!”
My insult, harmless as it was, seemingly stilled him in his spot. Out puffed his chest as he turned, and his face twisted up in the ugliest of snarls. I turned my eyes down. I knew he could snap me if he wanted to.
I fell sluggishly behind the group as we bobbed and wove through the diminishing crowds of what looked to be exclusively Wretches-turned-workers. Though they hadn’t originally lived there, I had been explained, the Wives had abolished the segregation of the multiple social classes by opening the Towers up to any and everyone. Apparently, those considered no more than slaves could now live in the First Tower with the Wives and war heroes, if they got their esteemed respect. In my eyes, nothing had really changed from the Immortan’s time here, but I said nothing. I never liked politics, anyhow.
The man instructed us to stop in front of a hallway leading off into a room erupting with clamouring noise, and I was glad not to join him. There was more waiting, more shouting from within the room, and eventually, he returned with a dark bowl of something.
He told us we’d be getting three rations a day, and to those of us with children (he looked pointedly at me), we’d share those three rations.
“Three daily rations? How much longer am I keepin’ her? I’m not here for her, I said that before!”
I seemed to be the only one complaining about the massive amount of food.
The man stared blankly at me. He genuinely didn’t seem to know.
“You’ll be comfortable ‘til someone comes and takes her.”
Without missing a beat, the man stuck his thumb into the bowl of black liquid, shook away the excess, and promptly shoved the pad of his thumb in the middle of my forehead, leaving a dark stain, promptly ruining the red symbol recognizing my midwifery skills. Shadowing it. To my horror, he did the same for Mary, making her screech and squeal.
“What the fuck is wrong with you--”
“Protocol. Keeps you from bein’ in places you shouldn’t be. Gets you your rations. Keeps you from getting tossed back where you came from. Gets reapplied every ten days. Now go... back with your folk.”
When I still didn’t move, he grunted and flapped his hands at the entrance. He looked tired and uneasy. Maybe he wanted to go back to his pretty lady. I couldn’t blame him.
The hall was dimly lit from within by what looked to be the light of several oil lamps, which gave the foreign space a falsely cozy atmosphere. Nothing could be comforting about all the yelling and screaming. The strain in my arms was bearing down on me, though, and the idea of putting the girl down and having a bite to eat sounded very attractive. As I stepped into the hallway, I thought of the words of the lucky War Boy: keeps you from bein’ in places you shouldn’t be.
The screaming grew in ferocity as I waddled my way into the hall, where a sickeningly familiar sight greeted me- I was home.
An enormous room, perhaps not as tall but as wide as the Lift Room, stretched its gaping jaws open to me to reveal rows upon rows of tents and mats, like the crooked teeth of a nasty beast. The walls were what looked to be a combination of empty mats, though it seemed that the current occupants had rearranged most of the place to their liking, with several of the mats piled one on top of the other under half-pitched canvas homes in the centre of the enormous space. There was no need for the shade in a room like this, but I suppose folks never quite got out of their old habits. Across from that messy resting spot was a stack of sloppily folded cloths for clothes and a row of buckets, the stench of which still permeated the room.
Now that I had a view of the place, the commotion was similar, too; most of the residents of this place were crowded around a pair of beefy War Boys, who were trying their damndest to hand out rations in a way that wouldn’t get them trampled or strangled for unfairness. Folks shrieked and moaned and roared, holding out greedy hands. The words of Joe echoed in my mind- cola and food did seem like a drug up here, where every inhabitant of this place looked plumper than I had ever been.
Those who didn’t beg for scraps sat aside, settling business over the noise. I could spot a game of thimblerig being played, games I never indulged in as per Maude’s wisdom. I couldn’t hear the words coming from the dealer’s mouth as he shuffled around the three mismatched cups on a board across his lap, but I could see the bets- bits of jerky, scraps of pretty patterned fabric, even an old handheld lighter. I could nearly imagine the loud groans coming from the losers as one lucky player- or shill, who could tell these days- collected his winnings.
Nearby, a circle of old crones huddled around a lamp, using fingers and toes to weave long pieces of thin plastic from bags that they collected to make bowls and containers. Every one of their backs were heavily arched from the work. They chatted as they worked and slobbered over a bowl of cactus flesh someone had brought. I hadn’t had cactus in forever. One of them slapped the hand of the largest of the group as she reached for more than her share, and all of them cackled, shoulders and spines bobbing in amusement.
On the very far edges of this room, women in colorful rags sat posted up against the wall. They were so far away that I could barely make out their features, but I could spot the glimmer of beads and trinkets in their hair and around their wrists and necks. They reminded me of the Wives, even though I had never seen them- they were supposed to be angelic, the Wives, but these women were different in a way I couldn’t quite place. But when one of them began talking with a man and eventually pulled him into a tent at the exchange of a portion of cola... Well. I understood.
I didn’t know who to ask, or who to talk to. How did I right myself in this place? Everyone sat in groups... and I sat alone.
I took a great chance and set Mary down on the nearest mat to the door, in the line of abandoned mattresses that no one dared sleep upon. Luckily, she only slightly grumbled before settling down to sleep. Thankfully enough, nobody ever came around to yell at me. This community of Wretches seemed as if they wanted to stay as far away from what they thought as the enemy’s territory as they could. It seemed she wasn’t hungry enough to stay awake and fuss, unlike the hordes of folks chasing after the War Boys leaving the room with empty pots, scraped clean of slop.
I dared to sneak a couple of rations of jerky out of my bag, and I ate them carefully and quietly. No one paid me very much mind. Once the War Boys were gone for good, folks dispersed and returned to their sleeping spots.
I was left alone.
No work here. Nothing. Just food, and gambling, and other work that I couldn’t bear to think about.
I needed to get out of here. I couldn’t risk losing myself for the sake of a child.
Vomit rose in my throat, and I swallowed hard. I put the rations away and clutched my bag to my stomach as I laid down beside Mary, my back to her. I had lost my appetite.
I sounded like my father.
Chapter 4: Sticky-Fingered Tendencies
Pa and I sat at a wreck, the rubbish left behind after a car had gotten engulfed in flames, in the middle of an endless desert. From within the tossed vehicle, which looked twisted up to the point of resembling a coiled snake, a shrill screech filled the air.
Pa was definitely close enough to save the passenger pinned beneath metal and rubber, but he ignored the sound in favor of reaching into the steaming heap of junk and ripping away the rear-view mirror from the ceiling of the car.
He smiled at me and tossed me the hunk of plastic and glass; when I stared into it, I saw absolutely nothing.
Blinking myself awake with a scream, I instinctively grappled for my bag of things, which had rolled far enough from me in sleep to give me a momentary scare. Even in the disgustingly early hours, in those moments of confusion, I wouldn’t dare be wasteful, not even accidentally. I couldn’t lose the only thing that would possibly guide me through these initial first days.
No one paid me any mind outside of a few grumbling comments. The few folks that were awake and getting up elected to ignore me and carry on with their morning tasks; I watched them with misty morning-eyes.
Signs of the early hours were like signs of age- the wrinkles and grey hair were always first to show. Old folk whose bodies had become too stiff for a decent night’s rest crawled out of their tents and waddled their way over to the waste buckets, some of them not even needing to open their eyes to do so. They had become familiar in their routines, even if they couldn’t have been here for very long. Then again... life wasn’t so different up here, just as I had guessed.
I watched more familiar characters as they rose, lighting lamps as they went, as there was no sunrise to lift them from their bedrolls. Businessmen dragged themselves away from their wives and sat outside their homes, using homemade combs made of bone to pick out the muck and old food from their beards, if not out of fear their ladies might kick them out for spreading gunk all over the blankets. Nearby, women were already up and doing chores, beating out their tent rags, folding them up for the day, adjusting their tents, putting their hair up in smart hairstyles like braids and into wraps.
It was almost a comfort to see that everyone was acting as regularly as they were. But it was the normalcy that ended up hurting me most when I spotted a woman, old, hunched, thin... waddling her way up to the little spot where the War Boys were sure to bring morning rations. Her face was rough and sour, her hair was a large tangle, and her weak body nearly tumbled into a knotted mess of aching bones as she sat down, just inches from where the enormous pot of food would be.
My heart sunk when she looked at me, and all I could do was shut my eyes and keep them squeezed.
Why hadn’t you listened, Mumma?
I had been here far too long already. Who knows if Lilac, dying herself, just needed an excuse to dump her kid and steal from a poor old woman with no one to protect her?
My urge to go back to my mother nearly sent me hurrying out of bed, but the exhaustion of my body and the distinct memory of that War Boy jabbing me with a calloused thumb to the forehead kept me exactly where I was.
Besides, I was useless to her down there. What was I going to do? No babies to catch, so no livelihood, and I’d be stuck burying her body and living off the rest of my life waiting to rot, too.
The old woman I had turned away from reminded me of my own hunger. I felt like I had been without food for much longer than two days. The War Boy serving us our meals- they had last shown their ugly faces yesterday evening- seemed eternally irritated with the noise, and I had a feeling they wouldn’t be happy with the growing number of mouths to feed.
I had traded away some red ochre with some of the flesh-selling women, who fawned and cooed over it with childish delight. I ended up with enough grit to feed myself and Mary for the next few days- if I planned very thoroughly. I didn’t want to resort to the strange Citadel food, like bits of meat sprinkled with black feathers.
I thought of the red hair wrap Maude had blessed me, which was folded up under my head, being sold to put food in the mouth of a pup that just wasn’t mine. It sounded even less appealing when I felt the warmth from Mary’s body grow in a wet puddle, smelt the stench of piss, and heard distinct snuffling to follow.
I groaned. Wasn’t she too old for all this?
I rolled over and saw her snotting, almost as if she knew I was losing my patience with her before ever saying a word. Her growling and huffing was getting louder, and turning into an ugly snorting-scream.
I scooped her up onto my bare forearm and with a huff and tried to ignore the rancid scent emanating from her, from the mats, from the blankets. It reminded me of the uglier, dirtier parts of birth. At least it wasn’t shit. I wasn’t about to bring more attention to us than my scream already had.
Mary grumbled something as she leaned into my shoulder, nearly hissing like an angry little worm of a snake, and from the growing light creeping in through the miniscule window, I could see nothing but the somewhat reflective quality of her dark, oily hair. I stumbled around sleepily with my cheek pressed against her scalp, rocking her achingly despite the piss dripping down my arm.
I felt a little hand reach with a whimper towards my chest and paw greedily at my breast. Despite her wet bottom and her irritability, Mary was still trying to stick a hand down the neck of my tunic.
Mary started garbling fussy complaints at me when she couldn’t quite figure out how to get the skin to skin contact she wanted. Her whimpers were rapidly turning back into shouts, and they proved to be much louder than a newborn’s.
“Alright, alright! Damn... Sorry,” I snapped quietly, removing her arm from where it was beginning to strangle me around the throat.
Without wasting another breath, I took her hand and slid it across my chest beneath my tunic from its open sides. The Mother’ miracles never ceased, because the instantly she felt my pulse under her little fingers, her body of tenseness and knots went slack in my hands.
I paused for a moment in the silence, listening to the sounds coming from animating room. Unlike yesterday, the Citadel didn’t seem so intimidating. When I was sure I wasn’t going to receive a walloping for being too loud, I exhaled deeply with relief and sat back on my heels.
I know the girl wouldn’t start yelling. She wasn’t much of a showman. Besides, she was exhausted and uncomfortable. At least now, I wouldn’t have anyone who ate more than me to worry about. She would make fine company.
She was floppier than a corpse, and I couldn’t clean her like I did a newborn. Lifting her while she was dangled in my clothes was difficult enough, but it didn’t help that she weighed as much as a bloated, rotting lizard.
“It’s bad enough that you’re still pissin’ yourself...” I said, staring down at her bleary little face. “Your mum coulda bared t’feed y’less.”
She made an indignant noise, and her little palms slapped at my collarbones. Horrible girl.
I got to my feet awkwardly with Mary in my arms, trembling all the while. I was starving, and so was she. Stumbling over to the waste buckets, I made a point to wipe my piss-soiled fingers against my skirts. The scent would be noticeable for a while, but it would fade into the other smells stained into this place. I was one, skinny, solitary woman. I would be forgotten.
I would have to find Mary some new clothes; the back of her shirt-dress was ruined, and her mother hadn’t given me anything to change her into. That fact made my stomach turn- her mother had given me nothing and expected everything when I could barely feed myself and had nowhere to go.
The walls smothered me in a way that the Wretched alleys and tents never did. Raw rock walls filled with dust and smoke seemed to choke me alive. The only light was artificial, came from flame; little burning fires in metal buckets stashed in corners, or hanging overhead in hellish baskets on chains. It made the walls burn red-brown, like dried blood.
I wanted to run home, but there was nowhere to run home to. I was lost in a complicated knot of mats, halls, and potential strangers.
This was it.
I nearly dropped Mary when, just a few feet down from where I stood, something was dropped to the ground and rattled the very floor I stood on. It was followed by a series of groans, something that sounded nearly animalistic.
Something I was familiar with.
My suspicions were confirmed when the scent of cooked food wafted my way, and even made Mary stop growling and huffing.
Yeah. Someone had deeply fucked up.
A pair of guards in pale, boney paint stood over what looked to be a broken dish of food, while another dressed just the same stood, nervously proud, across from them. Those like me, dirty and starved and stinking of piss, approached the three with intensity that reminded me of Watering Days back down the Lift with Maude. How everyone stalked their way towards tubes that released the cola like they were snakes looking for a mouse.
The questions began instantly on the part of my folk.
What happened?! Who let the new kid in?!
Too busy wankin’ to pay attention to your feet?!
How’m I supposed to feed my pup, huh?! Someone’s gotta answer for this!
I’ll smite you, War Pup!
The man on the left did not even allow the boy to get a word in white he released his own series of manic curses and snarls. The boy’s hands instantly shot out to put something between himself and the man. I couldn’t see over their shoulders to see his face, but I didn’t exactly want to look. I’m sure he was thanking V8 that the crowd couldn’t see his cowardice.
“You had one fucking job, slit-head,” the snarling man said.
The younger, rounder boy recoiled, spooked, but he spoke up regardless.
“You talk like they still won’t eat it! Damn, I’ll still eat it! I’ll find y’another bowl.”
“Pitch up a tent and stay if you wanna keep acting like your mediocre wretch-self,” the other guard snapped.
“Hey, fuck you, I ain’t the most mediocre one here!” the littler one growled, and in the torchlight I saw the men’s faces shift like weather on storm nights.
I set my feet and shoulders as they postured up. I backed away and prayed for nothing worse than a broken nose for the littler one. My lip quivered. I smelled my own sweat.
I stumbled backwards on instinct, into the dark of the room between the pillars of light, but it was too late. I knew it was. As the growing crowd engulfed the small group, keeping me from seeing much of anything, all I could make out before a roar of dozens drowned the room was a sickening crunch and a scream.
Someone- no, two, three, four someone’s- shoved at me to join the writhing group.
My cord-cutting knife was heavy on my hip, and I nearly grabbed it in a weak attempt at defense against these harsh fools, but with Mary in my arms, now whimpering and struggling to grab at me around the neck for more support, I knew I wouldn’t be able to grab it in time.
I just had to stand there and wait for the inevitable. The yelling. The force. The bets.
Suddenly, Mary and I were alone. Just as I had guessed, small pockets of men began to form around the tight circle of waving limbs and ugly voices, betting on how many bones the littlest War Boy would break, or if he would survive the fight at all.
Tents were empty. Food was abandoned where it cooked. Half-finished projects were placed carefully in the spots where they had been started. After all, no one could ignore the good stench of a fight.
A length of fabric hung across a stand of old, hollow, plastic pipes tied together with string, a beating stick nearby to remove dust from the garment, caught my attention. It fluttered limply in the wind, but the stains, the frayed edges, and the dirty quality of the dull, faded green thing were nothing compared to its finest quality: no holes.
My fingers itched.
Wouldn’t that be fine? It was a nice and long piece of cloth, longer than that rag I was currently toting around, and if I was careful, I could end up with it on my back in a few weeks, when its owner had forgotten about it. It looked mighty soft, too. Not very practical, wouldn’t last too long, but then again, it wasn’t exactly like I had to worry about sandstorms eating it up in here, did I? Besides, my rag would make a fine enough apron.
My jaw ached at the thought of a beating or getting caught. I couldn’t afford getting hurt. And yet… I would never get another chance. What were the odds of another idiot strolling into my life and offering me something so good?
I shook Maude’s warnings and scoldings out of my grey bits, deciding I had to work quickly. I was glad to have fallen asleep with the long strap of my satchel still around my narrow shoulders. I could slap it into the big bag if I was fast. And I had to be fast.
A little hand yanking on my hair reminded me of my one little setback. Mary seemed as if she knew something was going on behind my eyes, because she was staring at me like an angry hawk, probably ready for me to tell her what was happening, why I had gotten so quiet and still.
I wasn’t about to tell the pup I was stealing. The knowledge of my sticky fingers would fall from her lips in two shakes if she was ever asked about where that nice fabric went. She was still too little to know the use for stealing. Her big, round eyes sat trusting in her little skull; trusting to me, but also trusting to those who smiled and asked the right questions. A lie was all but necessary to keep us both alive, now.
I slid her down and, when her feet hit the floor, I leaned in to her dark nest of cut hair to make sure she heard my mistruth.
“Gotta go check if I can snag some food they dropped. Will ya stay and watch the fight? Gotta tell me who wins, yeah?”
I leaned back to gage Mary’s reaction. She didn’t seem suspicious, she was too little for that kind of feeling. If anything, she was nervous, and wobbled in her spot on her flat little toes. And yet, she still gave me a slow little nod.
I grabbed her by the arms and repeated the command a couple more times. Stay. Stay. Stay. I yelled it over the noise, and she nodded each time. If she couldn’t hear me, she was at least useful for reading lips.
Mother, I was glad to be free on my feet again. I turned around fast, looked both ways, watched, watched… and off I went, casual as I could. There was no running when it came to things like this. The only time to run was after you got caught. Before then, it was best to act like you were shopping for groceries in the time before my birth- Maude had told me that it took a lot of looking and blind, casual grabbing at what you wanted, which was basically all this was.
I puttered along the edge of the crowd, purposefully weaving myself in and out of the crowd, occasionally peeking in at the carnage- I had to make myself seem the same. I walked along the tangle of arms and ignored the harsh stab of pain that came with worn boots stomping on my feet. The little boy was on the floor and wouldn’t last much longer. I had to act fast.
I popped out of the meat of the group for just a moment as I came right up by the fabric, not minding the scuffle or the elbows narrowly missing my skull. In fact, I grinned, even when someone clipped my nose hard enough for me to bark and clutch my face. With one hand, I staunched the blood pouring out my nostrils, and with the other, I grabbed what I came here for and stuffed it carelessly with the rest of my humble things.
Mother be praised, I hadn’t had something as nice as this in a long while. I couldn’t help but cackle, because whoever had lost this cloth was losing a lot- it was slippery-soft, this fabric, with a nice, bouncy stretch. I clenched it tight between my fingers and felt it expand and deflate as I walked. The taste of blood was good in my mouth, for once. Blood in itself, was good for once. That poor boy had given me a nice opportunity. His memory would be fond in my head for a long while.
I had acted just in time. Just as the blood on my face had begun to dry, a groan and grand moan sounded from the Wretches, and somewhere mingled in the disappointment was the voice of the big ol’ War Boy saying something about bringing more grub for dinner. Mmm. Double portions sounded nice.
I made a point to keep my hands from my face. Maybe they would give me more to eat if they pitied the skinny wretch with a red-caked face. Well… maybe not. Couldn’t trust no one to put food in your gullet, let alone War Boys.
I would have to be careful about when I could work on this. All I would really need to make this a useful garment was some time with something sharp. Scissors would be better but my cord-cutter would have to do. I’d work on it by lamplight at night, after all had gone to sleep, and maybe I’d dare find a way to dye it in dirty cola so that no one would suspect from far away that I was a thief. If I cut it along the edges, I could probably sell the scraps off again, too. They’d make decent bandages in a pinch, or even a pretty green head wrap. I might even give a length of it to the girl, if she behaved.
Shit. The pup.
I took my hand out of my bag and yanked my head out of the clouds, turning back to where I came from. I couldn’t help but have a happy little spring in my step. All the blood was rushing to my head and making me feel light and good. Long term hunger and bad sleep were one thing, but, ooh, even those couldn’t beat the delight of a good, honest steal.
A feeling of bitter realization sent me crashing and burning. That sensation, like stepping on something sharp and taking in the fact that it was sticking out of your bare foot, hit me like the whip of a belt when I realized the pup was exactly not where I left her.
There were no little bangs, no determined, stubborn eyes, and certainly no possible tumor sticking out above her eye. There was just some asshole taking a piss and raising his eyebrow at my gawking.
Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, I had lost the pup. This was the Mother punishing me for thievery, and for ugly vanity.
As I swallowed hard and turned rapidly on my heel for the second time, I could only openly wonder: why did I have to be punished for stealing some clothing, and the person who stole a pup got nothing but a good opportunity?
I could hear Maude tutting at me as I hurried back to our sleep mat, in some delusional attempt to keep myself calm with the knowledge that, maybe, the foolish girl had run back to the place she knew after noticing that I wasn’t around anymore. But, no, she wasn’t there either.
Maude had always told me that the worst feeling in the world was to lose a child, whether that be for just a few moments or for a lifetime. My brother by my father, Maude’s son, had passed before I was around to remember it. He had a malformed head with not enough room for his grey bits; when I was young, I would have nightmares about seeing him, a little corpse on two feet with his skull flesh leaking from his eyes and ears and mouth.
Maude said the guilt came first, and as always, she was right. Mary wasn’t mine, and it wasn’t like I was fond of her, but her mother had sent her up for a reason. She deserved life as well as anyone else, didn’t she?
The selfish part of me spoke up, too: I deserved to use my skills and put food in my own mouth without worrying about some little punk who didn’t even come from my loins! How could her mother forsake me to a life of parenthood when I was barely out of the nest myself? Sure, I knew the basics- feed and change the pup when it cried, water it, tuck it in, lift the tarp spread across the sand to assure it there was nothing creepy-crawly beneath that was ready to bite or pinch it in the night. If the kid got scooped up for who-knows-what reason, then how was it my fault? She didn’t even belong to me. I didn’t make the mistake of loving on a stranger to get saddled with something I didn’t want.
A sharp shriek made me look up from my trembling fists- nearby, a man was wrestling harshly with a group of flesh-giving women, while another sat crumpled on the floor, clutching at her colorful clothes and trying her best not to weep. The other women tossed and kicked at the man- one even went so far as to sink her teeth in and yank at his shoulder- before throwing him far away from their circle of fine little tents. They spat and swore and watched furiously until he slid away with an arched back, surely sore all over.
I watched the women with my eyes but my brain was playing tricks- I saw Maude plucking me up from the ground, cradling me and snarling at anyone who came close to her bloodied pup, rocking me and letting me hide my face in her wiry collarbone. It was as if my soul had left my body, and I was helpless to watch from the outside in, reliving my own memories like a sick trick of the Mother’s.
Yes, of course, it was the Mother who was making my tongue taste sour in my mouth, and making the guilt squeeze the air out of my lungs. It was she who put the dreaded question in my head.
When Mary gets hurt, who will be there to hold her through her tears?
The question bounced around like an ugly little desert mouse in my grey bits, gnawing away at every other thought until that was all that was left. The mouse even dared to take over for my feet and my hands; it made me move, combing through the tents and the people and the smells and the stains and the lingering sand and dirt that I could hear scuffing under my boots. It even dared put its little hands behind my eyes and made me look for the little head of black hair. Pin straight. Cut into an ugly little fringe around her birdlike shoulders.
The crow in my head that usually would try to drown everything else out with distraction and work got shut up, too. The mouse pinned its wings down and wired its beak shut. It was busy. I was busy.
I must have looked for Mary for hours. Listened for her rare but shrill little voice with bloodied ears. Tried to pick up that lingering newborn-stench on her with a runny nose. Even the hair on my arms stood on end, ready to snatch and grab any tiny digits that dared linger at the hem of my skirts.
I did three full circles of this new camp, but still found nothing. There was no pup of Lilac’s anywhere. Not even the trace of a dirtied nappy.
My feet ached when I took a seat back at my mat. There were only two possible reasons I couldn’t find the little mite that had, not too long ago, been attached to me at the hip: someone had killed her for food or pleasure, or she had left altogether.
There was no way of knowing about the first possibility. I would have to linger around and try to scrounge up bones, but after stealing that damned, forsaken fabric… I didn’t have an option to be going up into folks’ business.
The other option?
I looked to the exit to this horrid place. Though I hadn’t noticed them before, two men dressed as I was sat at either side of the door; they looked properly fed up, but they weren’t shaved like the War Boys. Probably rejects who got tossed from the War Boy ranks under Joe, but managed to find work here when new management decided to play at mercy. They were letting tradesmen pass, but those tradesmen had little blue marks on their foreheads instead of black.
If Mary was going to go anywhere, then she might have snuck out with a group of tradesmen and broke off once she was outside. She was clever enough to do so. Little was good, sometimes, and I knew it.
Unfortunately, even someone who could be mistaken to be some lonely broomstick if turned upside-down like myself wouldn’t stand a chance against them. They could snap me if they wanted to.
What else could I do? How else could I get out? How many times had they heard they ‘my pup is missing and I need to go find her’ story?
I briefly wondered if these weak men could be seduced. I didn’t have to think very long about it- of course they could. We were simple. Humans wanted flesh to consume, in any way it possibly could be.
I looked down at my bare knees, trembling. If I lifted my skirts just so, ruffled my hair, smiled…
No. No. Not for that pup. Not for anyone. Not again.
My turning stomach kept me from even feeling a single pang of hunger, despite the food we had so lacked at breakfast finally arrived. It nearly made me feel like vomiting when I remembered how eager I was for double-portions earlier in the day. All of that eagerness, everything had left me… all because of a fucking scrap of fabric.
I yanked the fabric from my bag, nearly feeling my nails sharpening as I stretched it in my hands. The crow and the mouse in my head seemed to agree, now. Both were squeaking and squawking at me to rip the damn thing up.
I never got the opportunity to do so.
Two fat hands grabbed me around the collar and yanked me from my spot on the mat, yanking me to attention and shaking me violently a couple of times. I struggled to focus on the person rattling me, but all I saw was dry brown eyes, the type that almost looked tinged red.
I heard something about being a little bitch, a whore, a serpent, classic fare. They were trying to grab the fabric out of my hands. The crow in my head must have been acting up despite its restraints, because for some reason, I refused to let go.
They spat in my eyes. Try to pry apart my knuckles. Even tried yanking my hair from its roots. It hurt, but that mouse kept me feeling much of anything. And my crow? Well, it kept me from doing the logical thing and releasing my hold on the thing causing me so much pain.
More hands joined in, but this time, they didn’t have the intent to hurt. They were pulling the rightful owner of the cloth away. I still held on. I could feel the fabric tensing and ripping at the edges as I stared into two familiar faces. Stocky lads.
Stocky lads that were no longer watching the door.
Holy shit. Holy pile of steaming crap. This was it.
The mouse and the crow in my head finally decided to work together for once. I thought of Mary as the victim of my sticky fingers screeched in my face some more.
“ Cunt! Idiotic, howling little bitch! ” they cried, straining against the guards.
My crow snapped the restraints around its beak.
“I’m no bitch,” I snarled in disgusting delight. “You are! Now fetch! ”
I dug my hands as tight as I could into the fabric and sharply twisted and pulled, yanking it cleanly from its former owners’ hands. Without another moment of hesitation, I twisted it up into an ugly ball, wound up my skinny arm, and launched it towards the crowd of folks waiting for their dinner.
Though I couldn’t see the spark of the riot, I could hear the chaos that ensued. My steal really was a good one. It could get an entire room to start wailing and fighting in a matter of minutes.
The halls I found were cold and empty. As I left, away from the settlement and away from the Lift, I felt as if I had been swallowed by a great snake, and I had just gotten past its twin fangs.
I took comfort in one lie that I had repeating like a mantra over to myself since I was a pup: I was just one girl. No one would come after one girl.
My boots were the loudest thing around me, their steel toes clacking loudly against the raw floors.
I remembered Maude’s smile in my head, and I smiled too.
This was something she would do.
Chapter 5: Scrub 'n Scrap
The halls smothered me in a way that the Wretched alleys and tents never did. Raw rock walls filled with dust and smoke seemed to choke me alive. The only light was artificial, came from flame; little burning fires in metal buckets stashed in corners, or hanging overhead in hellish baskets on chains. It made the walls burn red-brown, like dried blood.
I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go. I was lost in a complicated knot of doors, halls, and potential strangers who hadn’t even showed their faces yet.
I hit dead end upon dead end of empty rooms and storage space. Doorways; dust and forgotten sleep mats. I came upon rows of rooms every hall I stepped into: each, a collection of spider webs living in old boots and clinging to lost trousers. I half-expected Mary to be in one of these piles of old clothes, playing around like pups her age often did. But she was never there.
Where was I? What was this? Why was so much of this place abandoned? They hadn’t lost that many War Boys in the war! There were surely still pups to fill the space, weren’t there? They could spread them out a bit, give them more room. It was a waste, and one that made little sense at all. If they could stuff that many wretches in one spot, force ‘em to mingle…
I looked back in the direction that I had come from. There was nothing I recognized. I had gotten myself deep enough into the belly of the Citadel to lose myself completely in it.
There was barely enough light to see in these dim little halls, but so I kept a hand on the wall and let it drag as I made my way through the dark. I tried in vain to remember the dips and drops in the rock wall, looking for pattern, familiarity… but there was none, not in this place.
What would happen if I died here? Getting lost in the tunnels seemed like a fate worse than death. There would be no sand to bury me into, no way for the Mother to find my body in this cold, heretical place which worshipped the ugly oil and metal of an engine.
I could hear the War Boys chanting their god-honoring haka, even though no one was around.
V8, V8, V8, V8!
Their voices crawled into my ears, an ugly, deep, writhing mass that was as incomprehensible to me as the directionless, slithering hallways. Why was everything so confused? Wasn’t there anyone with any sense running this place?
The Mother must have been listening to the screeching of that little rat in my head, because before I dared start to cry and waste cola out of panic… a familiar face greeted me, under my very fingertips, one too deformed and piggish to outright ignore.
A portrait of an ugly myth- Joe Moore, the King of Rot himself- was plastered onto the wall. I had never gotten a good look at him, except for a glimpse at his chewed bones, which someone had been trying to sell to Maude after the old fucker had finally carked it. When his limbs had come down to be eaten, I curled my nose up at them, even though my stomach was gnawing on itself at that point. He had been covered in sores, maybe from gout. But I wasn’t going to begin examining the body.
Whoever had painted this saw something in the animate pile of armoured trash that I certainly never had. His expression was stern and steely, his gleaming white eyes looking down towards the viewer of the portrait in total judgement. I imagine his nose must have been curled behind the long-toothed mask he had soldered to his mouth. What that bastard had to curl his nose at, I didn’t know. He had fresh air in his lungs and didn’t even have to fight and trade for it. Even his long, tousled hair seemed effortlessly curled up from his face in long, lovely strands. He wasn’t the product of inbreeding, like the rumors said. He had the luxury of being ugly completely by his own accord.
Despite how realistically the wrinkles on his face were etched into his skin, or how his eyes shifted to follow me around… the most impressive thing about this drawing was not Joe.
Hundreds of handprints, stained black and white, exploded in a patterned sunburst around his image, curling and fighting for the space closest to his inhuman beastie-eyes. The ones closest to him were faded, flaking and old, but as I made my way down the hall, the prints became fresher and newer, more distinct. Some of them were mingled with red marks; sometimes, two, three, four pairs overlapped. A couple dozen of them were even furiously scratched out with what looked to be a blade of some sort.
One, though, one was far more destroyed than the others. The only indication that a hand mark was ever there at all was that the destruction of it was shaped like a crude hand and splattered with blood. Someone had tried to restore it- paint up the hand-shaped hole again with bright white- but it didn’t do the trick. The damage was done.
This War Boy was a traitor so foul that even the memory of him had to be destroyed. And yet, the idea of that traitorship filled me with belonging.
I reached out… and I put my hand in the cavernous space where a man left behind a part of his soul.
It was cold. I figured it would be. Bones on souls on rock felt empty and too full at once; remembering that this person, this unknown man I felt so close to all of a sudden, was dead made me dread the unknown that was surely coming for me, had gotten my father, and might have already swallowed up Mary.
What would make a man preserve his hand on a rock wall? What scared him more, the man whose memory was stuck to linger in a lifeless stone? Not coming home with a trophy of war, or not coming home at all?
Maude used to tell me stories about weeping phantasms, brides scorned and still wearing tattered whites. She always scared me with those stories, but she’d grin toothlessly as I gasped and groaned along to the sway of her emphatic hands and oil-lamp eyes. I had never expected to come across one such critter, especially not in the form of someone babbling to himself in a raspy language I couldn’t understand, inching his way in my direction on the bum of his dirty trousers and growling with every movement of his lean body.
I instinctively stepped back and pressed myself against the wall, almost reached for my knife, too… but I was surprised to see a true-blue War Boy, though there was not a trace of war in him.
I couldn’t see him well in the dark, but I was sure that the black paint around his eyes had dribbled and melted down his stubbled cheeks, at least by the way he was helplessly grunting to the empty dark. He was in pain. I could imagine the tar inside him- the tar that clogged the head of every War Boy- pouring out of him and into a muddy puddle on the ground. The image choked me so roughly that when his shockingly low voice finally garbled out a defensive ‘hello’ in my direction when I shifted around, I didn’t initially manage to bark anything back at him.
I watched, just for a second.
He was sat on his ass on the ground, one leg bent while the other lanky limb was awkwardly sprawled out. His raw, red, moist left hand and the fading paint on the wall told me enough about what he was stuck here doing- soaking up memories of an ugly past and wringing them out. Boring work, the worst kind. The crazy-making kind.
He was still little, still didn’t get that good, sharp jaw men had, or the width to go with it, but he wasn't a child. Some muscle, but skinny as a pole... except up top, in the face. Egg-like little thing…
The roundness of his face nearly made me jump, even though it was stupid, and silly.
This was the poor little pup-man who had gotten smacked around for dropping food. Still too young to say 'no' to the ones that bossed him around. Most probably bullied into taking this shitty job.
This was an opportunity, and my only chance at help and some form of safety.
The only thing I still had on me, my cord-cutter, dug into my hip.
What other choice did I have?
This must have happened before, him waiting for answers from the silence. It was about time the dark offered him a response.
I stepped out of the dark, and raised my hand in a quiet, peaceful greeting.
Please don’t fucking scream, kid.
The pup looked worried, scared, even, when he saw me- but his fleeting eyes, jumping around in his head, helped me decide that his jaw wasn’t quivering for me. He shuffled backwards on his hands and knees with a baby-like scoot-drag, eyes finally turning low towards the wet rag he was clutching with all the passion in his body. Did he think I was going to take it from him?
“...gonna be done soon, go along, I’ll be faster. Move along.”
I didn’t move. Why would I? I wasn’t quick enough to think up a quick lie to correct this child about who I was without making myself look guilty, and I certainly wasn’t going to up and bolt in the opposite direction. Did he think I was important? Someone to be scared of? And why the fuck would he think that? Instead of trying to figure out what he meant by his carefully chosen words and guarded gaze, I, like a fool , I waddled awkwardly in place with a gaping mouth, struggling to find words to fill the emptiness.
I didn’t think of anything useful to say. Would begging work? A desperate waterwork show? Useless, War Boys didn’t know how to do deal with ladies. But this one seemed to realize I was different. He was shuffly and quiet. Perfectly respectable, perfectly not War Boy. I had nothing to work with. This weepy little shit was so damn hard to read!
After standing there long enough, even the War Boy eventually looked up from his precious scrap of fabric, and furrowed his face where his thick eyebrows comically clumped because of his white paint. I didn’t get the opportunity to laugh. I was running out of time. I had to think quick before me asked more questions.
And yet, to my horror, something clicked in his expression. When I didn't walk away, his own mouth fell open, and he bowed his head even further when I just stood there, dropped his towel, and laces his bony little calloused paws at me.
I had seen this gesture before- War Boys did it before they went out on the road, as a prayer gesture to their cold, ugly god. There were no foreheads pressed to the sand in humble worship of the rising sun, or offerings of lizard legs to please the goddess. This was supplication, born from terror.
“No, no, don’t… ugh. That’s enough,” I said.
The pup looked up, obedient to a fault, and dropped his hands. And yet, that just made him lean back against a hand and stare at me.
“Uh… should I, should I stop? I got told to stick around until dinner...”
Why was he asking me for orders? I didn’t hear him finish. Or, maybe I didn’t let him.
“Is someone coming back t’get ya?”
My urgency must have put him on the spot, I could tell, but he had learned to be prompt.
“I-I mean, someone’s bound to take my shift eventually.”
“Coupl’a hours? Listen, I don’t…”
“Let’s make a deal.”
He wasn’t sure of me, that much I could tell. But he played at being serious and crossed his arms. I'm sure folks didn't often barter with pups who had just started growing out a full chest of hair.
"...go on, then," he said slowly, making sure his voice didn't risk cracking.
“I’m lookin’ for someone. Little pup, a girl-pup. Black hair. A tumor over her eye. Ya help me find ‘er and bring me home, then… well, I’ll do somethin’ for you.”
“A favor?” he asked.
I didn’t like his tone of voice, no matter how innocent I knew it was. It reminded me of another voice, saying the same words. Just the memory of it made my teeth ache and my mouth dry up.
“Sure, kid,” I continued on, folding my arms so he wouldn’t see my shaking hands. “But we gotta get goin’. Now.”
It didn’t take the kid long. He slowly got to his feet, and I suddenly realized why he was sitting so funnily. Even though I had seen him get beat, it hadn’t really hit me that the vile crunch I had heard was something he hadn’t gotten around to fixing. His boot was laced tight around his ankle, maybe to act as a splint, but I was sure, without even needing to look at it, that it was just cutting off any and all good movement of the blood.
I glanced over my shoulder. He was taking too damn long. If someone was coming for me, they would be here soon. And I wasn’t going to let some pup make me face my death.
“Ya can’t stand,” I said, trying to hide my urgency by scrubbing at my nose with the back of my hand.
“...I got hurt,” is all he said, leaning back against the wall with his elbow.
He wasn’t about to show me the fearful, cowardly side of his injuries. I felt my hands shake further with nervousness, and I clenched them harder. I wasn’t either.
“I could take a look at it. Must feel nasty,” I offered, fully prepared to pull my knife if he refused.
To my utter shock and relief, this little one hopped up and glowed, eyes positively glittering like scrap in sun.
“You’re a Redthumb? Fix flesh?”
“Jus’ some. Sutures, bandages. Lemme see.”
“I don’t got nothin’ to trade--”
I cut him off somehow, maybe with a glare, but as I saw before, he was well-trained. I didn’t want to cut the boy up. I wasn’t about to be tossed out for running off and slicing a member of the standing army.
“Deal, ‘member? Don’ worry. I’ll-- we’ll figure it out.”
I dropped to my knees before he could argue any further. I had to fiddle around with the tie on the boy’s boot while he hopped around on a foot, struggling with his balance as he leaned against the wall. I tried to be careful as I was taking the boot off, but he grimaced and pulled a face at me anyways.
His ankle was swollen and bruised, nearly twice the size of his other foot. Busted up, at least twisted. But when I grabbed his foot and dug my fingers into the muscle to feel for a break, his trembling and coughed out whimpers were proof enough of what I was seeing. Shattered ankle.
“Is it bad?” he asked, all manly tears as he wiped his eyes furiously with his forearm.
Familiar brown skin greeted me around his eyes. Huh. I had always thought that War Boys were all pale, even under the paint. Life got sucked out of them… not this one. Maybe he was still young enough to bare the brunt of war. Or maybe he had never seen the Road.
“Broken. Can’t do much for it here. I’ll wrap it for ya, though. Ya gotta stay off it, yeah? Si’down.”
He let out a dramatic groan that I wasn’t expecting, and he slid down the wall with his head tipped back, looking much like he had gotten stabbed.
“Gonna get the worst jobs,” he mourned, rubbing his face like he had just gotten a nasty slap. “No good food , no good bed , it’s gonna suck rust !”
I rolled my eyes at him. Mother, was I like this at his age?
I let him ramble on while I examined his foot. I was lucky to still have my bag with me, and some bandages to wrap him up with. If I was being honest, I had never set an ankle before, though he didn’t need to know that. I had seen Maude do it once or twice- it was just a matter of setting the limb back where it was meant to be and keeping it there for as long as you could. Wrapping it tight would make the swelling go down, too.
I had to pretend to be confident when I pulled out a roll of soiled bandages and unraveled them with my teeth. With one hand holding his foot upright, like how it would sit if he was standing upright on it, I carefully wrapped him from sole to ankle. A splint would work better for a break, but I didn’t know how to make one, and I didn’t have something straight and flat to press up against his leg. It would have to do.
I sewed it shut with a couple of rusty safety pins that I had scattered across the bottom of my bag. By the time I was through and examining his foot one last time, I didn’t notice that he had gone quiet and was staring at me.
“...I’m so mediocre,” he said, eventually realizing it was best to turn his eyes away, and slowly creeping back off the wall.
On his way down, he had accidentally smothered the portrait of Joe in his own white paint, leaving his dark back exposed.
“Nah,” I responded, staring at the ruined painting. “You’re alright. Now, c’mon. We gotta go.”
I tried to wrap his arm around my shoulder, where he could lean on me, but I was too small, even for a pup like him. So he ended up just slapping a hand on my shoulder instead and began hobbling down the hall with me.
“So… you lost a pup?” he asked, awkward to a perfect fault.
“I didn’t lose ‘er. She wandered off while I… nevermind.”
“So, you lost a pup.”
“Shut it, boy. Where are we even goin’?”
“Gonna go to the feedin’ hall. That’s where all the decent trades happen. If someone wanted to do something with a pup- sell ‘em, sign ‘em up for fights… well, best place to bring ‘em is there.”
I swallowed and picked up the pace, looking behind me even more often, now. Selling ? Fights ?! What were they going to do to her? Worse off, what was going to happen if I didn’t find her? If she wasn’t there? What was going to happen to me? What was this pup going to ask in return for this possibly futile search?
What if I was going to sold? Forced to fight? What if this boy was all sad faces and nasty intentions?
I didn’t have much of an opportunity to think about how foolish this situation was. Shattered light bulbs dangled precariously on strings, nailed to the wall in clumsy arcs just out of reach, exploded into my vision as we entered a narrow little packed room. They flickered on and off in complete disorder, skipping erratically to the harsh footsteps filling the room. Only a handful of folks- men- stumbles around in a bitter haze, shooting glances at me with glares so poisonous that their eyes seemed more like adder fangs to me than anything else. In fact, their eyes were dull, angry-empty, filled with absolutely nothing and feeling that ugly rage because of it.
I knew that feeling. Being miserable and snapping at someone because of an empty belly, or snatching too aggressively at any chance at muddy water when you were thirsty. These men, who sat on wobbly stools made of welded metal or laid on their backs on hole-ridden blankets, staring up at nothing and thoughtlessly stuffing food in their mouths… they were helpless to react to the cruel decisions things out of their control had brought on them.
The little pup gestured for me to sit down somewhere on the ground, but I didn’t pay him any mind. Adder-eyes on me, well, they made me nervous enough to grab the back of his belt. He limped along with the extra weight of my arm but never dared wince in my direction. Maybe he wanted to impress his elders. Even when one man, face covered in burn scars, lashed out and kicked in the direction of his stumbling leg (bastard even yelled something about myself being a wretch-whore-breeder), the little one just kept his eyes down, reached back, and wrapped his skinny arm around me. The boy didn’t let go, even when I flinched.
What was he thinking? Why this? Did he think that this, the skeletal arm around me, was a means to fulfill his part of the deal? Did he even want this? I probably stank, and I know I was too thin to be comfortably held. I could only wonder if he liked this. Maybe this pup just needed someone. Someone who wasn’t strong enough to push him when he gave me a sideways look.
“Why’re you looking for this pup anyways? She yours?”
I huffed at him. That question.
“Can’t have pups.”
“No food. Narrow hips, too.”
“Well, couldn’t you just have your own Mother’s Milk? Share it! You’n the pup could have some, both! That way, you wouldn’t be so narrow, neither.”
“Too late for me. Stuck like this for good, now. Even if I tried, I wouldn’t get bigger. Stomach would just pop.”
“Like a tire that’s too full of air!”
“Something like that.”
“And there’s no patching you up again! I mean… not without makin’ you look chunky. Awkward, too. An’, well… wouldn’t make you look nice.”
This one never shut up. Guess he had no one who could bare getting their ear gnawed off. He didn’t seem to pay any care to my tenseness, my nervousness.
He was talking, talking talking… then again, maybe it was for the best that he was all touches and smiles.
Made me look less suspicious.
Two men sitting side-by-side on an old blanket, spread out on the floor, stared at me and spoke to each-other in low tones. Everything seemed to move slowly as I walked past them- one of them had a scar over his eye. The scar went down to my boots, up, up, up... and rested on the stain marking my freckled skin.
My hand flew to my forehead. If I blocked everything else out, I could nearly feel the ink burning into my skin, or maybe that was just their eyes.
The one with the scar barked out a laugh when he saw me panic, and called out for someone, who was chewing on bird bones nearby. He said something, muffled by all the noise, and pointed.
Before I could tell the boy that one of his elders had spotted me, the third man glanced my way, saw me clutching my face, and immediately ran off from where we had come from.
He was getting someone.
I thought War Boys were filled with tar. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it was me that was filled with the hot, rotten stuff. The tar inside me ate at my stomach and made my bones melt up, eventually reaching my head and drowning me, my rat, my crow.
Was this it? Was this all I was going to be remembered for? Some stupid bitch who stepped out of line and got tossed back where she came from after losing the one thing she was supposed to watch? After bandaging a War Boy's foot wrong, crippling him for life? After not even doing anything worthwhile with herself?
Oh, Mother, oh, Mother-- what if Maude found my body down there? Would she even recognize me anymore? What if-- what if someone fucking fed me to her and she liked it?!
Something, something… something crept up on me, with dull little prods and the occasional sharp poke. Like goosebumps- what was a goose- I was a rock or a piece of scrap being ravaged by grains of sound and sand and bugs all over.
Why was everyone touching me? Why wouldn’t they stop looking?
Who had their hand on my throat?
Pushing, pushing, why wouldn’t they-- he, him-- why wouldn’t he stop pushing?
Can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t, can’t-- why wouldn’t he let go?!
Why, stop, stop, fucking stop --
Who put me on the floor?
Many hands touched me, but mostly just two, an arm around my shoulders and another around my head, fingers in my hair. Who spoke? Who touched? I opened my eyes and saw a white shoulder, smeared with brown, or maybe it was the other way around? It was warm… my mother held me like this, once.
Shit. Who would bury her once she was gone?
I looked up. The boy was crouched over me, and he was squeezing me tight and covering me with himself. He wasn’t the only one I saw. There were boots all around, belts, trousers, bellies and hips. And voices .
Bites of conversation exploded in my eardrums.
“V8 brought her to us , mate--”
“--no one fuckin’ wants a wretch in here, maybe she’s got somethin’--”
“--sell her t’someone and at least get somethin’ outta it!”
I wanted to grab my knife, but I had been squashed into the floor by the pup while the small group argued about what should be done with me. They kept looking at me, occasionally flying their cultish little hand signal at me. Fuck, I was gonna be sick.
“Can someone shut the breeder up?!”
That new voice was manic and harsh, and I didn’t like it one bit. Sounded like someone I knew.
“She’s-- she’s just nervous! She lost her pup!”
That was the little one speaking up, now. His mouth was close. I could feel his breath on me, somewhere.
“That wretch slut is not meant to be here! Give her here, someone’ll like that screamin’.”
“You can’t sell her! She’s a Redthumb! She’s going to help!”
“A Redthumb?! For who?! She’ll be worth even more on the outside! Get your head on right, pup!”
Vomit was pooling in the back of my mouth. My body was straining against the little ones. It seemed to know that someone had to move, unless they wanted to lose a potential soldier or I wanted to lose my lives.
I heard my heavy breath. I heard the pup’s.
Eventually, I heard someone else’s breath, too.
It was that bastard with the burnt face, sticking his head over the little one’s shoulder to stare at me.
Holy fuck. There was nothing behind the eyes. Nothing. Nothing.
I needed to get out.
I started to scream, but even that didn’t deter him.
“You’re loud,” he said. “That can be fixed.”
He grabbed me by the chin and slammed my head into the floor, causing an uproar. I spat in his eye and lunged out with intent to bite. Instead of retreating, he just curled his nose and shouted something along the lines of “aw, fuck it” before reaching out with his free hand and trying to grab the boy by his forearm. Maybe he was trying to grab me, but I’d never know.
The first mistake he made was trying to separate me from a pup for the second time that day.
I didn’t know how fast I could be, when I was afraid, how agile my bone-hugging bag of skin could be when I saw the life of a baby flash before my eyes. It must have been midwife instinct. I heard Maude’s voice in my head. When in doubt, cut the cord.
I drew my knife in time with the rising of the ruckus around us, and without thinking, blindly struck it out in front of me. I knew I had struck something, but I was too frightened to open my eyes.
The choking gasps and eventual screaming hit me before I had the stomach retract my arm. The room around me shook and howled , drowning out everything else.
I didn’t know how to use my knife as a weapon. I had had it for years, spilled blood with it, but never to harm. I had to look. I had to look .
Wide, trembling eyes, dry from what looked to be years of practice, stared and screamed at me in time with his mouth. Strings of spit clung to his teeth as he spilled his rage across my face, down my neck, onto the pup’s back, onto my chest. In his hand, he clutched at his own fingers, brown, boiling blood pooling from his knuckles. As it dripped to the floor, I nearly expected it to sizzle on impact with the worn rock.
He was hyperventilating. His eyes were a shocking black. Or, maybe they weren’t. I didn’t get a chance to look very hard.
His bloody hand came down on me with a guttural roar, and the other grabbed the pup by the shoulder to try and pull him away. He slammed his palm against my neck and squeezed, but it wasn’t very hard. I knew the squeeze of tight fingers... and he was missing some of his.
His limb, dying fingers were only half-attached to his hand, and I could feel them trying desperately to squeeze my neck. I wasn’t concerned with my own breathing- I was reaching for the boy.
He was being held behind the fucker by some other men. His wobbly leg was the only thing keeping them in their arm. He was wailing . Why? Guess he really wanted his end of the deal.
I smelled his sour, meaty breath as the man leaned in, screaming, probably with the intention to scare me.
My heart slammed to a stop as the horrible realization came to me.
I still had the knife. And this man was no innocent.
I wouldn’t mind getting tossed out if it meant getting rid of someone like him.
Though my vision was spotting at the edges, my upper lip curled as I dared to scream back, splattering my own spit across his face. I raised the knife, heard a joint roar come to the room... and then, suddenly, like a storm, an eerie collective silence.
The boy was the only one who continued yelling in the quiet, though it seemed that even then, she had the wherewithal to look off towards the entrance of the room.
I couldn’t turn my head. Blood was rushing in my ears, and though I knew my eyes were open, I couldn’t see a thing. I felt like I was falling, despite the bastard still holding me up by the throat.
I tried to hold out my arms, but they fell, empty.
I was dropped. That much I knew. The War Boy holding me up was surely not gentle enough to think of placing me. I wasn’t his pup.
I was in and out of it for a few moments, but by the time I came to, the boy had wriggled his way back to me and was muttering at me, slapping my cheek hard to get my eyes open. Ouch. Ouch.
“...she drew a knife on me! You expected me t’sit there and let her take my hand off?!”
A trembling voice spoke up out of the blue. I didn’t need to seek out the owner of that squawk. Though that gassy, oily smell still drifted around, I could pick out the smell of nervous sweat.
I could see the man’s boots through the fog of white and black around me, puddling an increasingly disgusting pool of blood onto the dropped pile of what looked to be meat that had been dropped earlier. His toes must have been soaked in the sticky stuff by now. It would take him weeks to get it out.
Another pair of larger boots stood across from his, just out of the way of the hot, red lifeblood. I couldn’t see his face from my position on the floor, but all heads were turned at him, and everyone kept their gobs shut.
I knew that silence from my time with my father.
Oh, yeah. This was the Big Boss.
Chapter 6: Ace of Canes
Part of me was expecting Furiosa, but this man wore War Boy trousers and boots far too large to belong to her. Or, maybe they weren’t too big. I hadn’t seen her, the day she had gone up the lift. Maude and I were too busy hauling ass in a desperate attempt to grab a part of Joe to sell off to someone far hungrier than us.
The Big Boss huffed and shifted his weight slowly to one leg. He looked irritated and uncomfortable.
“You got in her maw,” he said bluntly, and sighed like saying it made him hurt more than his fellow Boy’s sore hand.
His voice shocked, but not in the way I was expecting. Where as I was nearly anticipating Joe’s booming voice over the sound of a microphone... this man spoke with strain, and a calm sort of disposition that made him even more frightening.
An explosion of responses filled the room, especially by the fingerless man and what looked to be his friends. The man was trembling at the knees, and looked in a similar state to myself. When he wiped his sweating upper lip, he left a streak of crimson blood behind; when I touched my neck and the bottom of my face, it felt sticky-wet. We were matching.
“So you’re gonna let her do whatever, huh?! Let some Wretch-whore walk on our turf ‘cause she’s some breeder?!”
“C’mon, boss, be reasonable! Look at her! Ain’t worth anything anyhow!”
“Will all of you shut your goddamned mouths?!”
I jumped and must have shrieked. Now that was the voice of a Big Boss. Mother on her heavenly throne... The room fell to quiet grumbles instantly. It reminded me of the way the crowds would hush when we were awaiting aqua cola. This was Joe, and his hands were on the levers.
“...where is she?”
The crowd parted before my heart sunk to my stomach. Some glowered down at me; others seemed somewhat impressed; the rest didn’t seem to fully comprehend that a woman was in their midst, and were still wide-eyed and flashing laced fingers at me.
I knew all this, but I wasn’t really looking at them. With the subtle shhff, shhff, shhff of his boots on the ground, like a snake in sand, the Big Boss came face to face with me.
He was incredible, in a way a lightning victim scalded to death was. He was old, and was standing with the stubborn pride of someone who knew he was dying but wasn’t quite there yet. Lumps and bumps covered him- typical War Boy ails- settling in the creases of his aged body, which was still shockingly robust. And yet... I couldn’t see the full extent of it.
He was leaning heavily on a cane made of a hollow, thin pipe, its highest end curved to fit the Big Boss’ meaty hand. He leaned heavily on it as he shuffled forwards towards me, his body tightly wrapped in stained bandages, yet Pit and I had nowhere to go. I didn’t want to know how easily he could swing that cane.
My knife was sitting just a few feet away. In my foolishness, I tried to reach for it, but a loyal War Boy who wasn’t distracted by the shock of seeing a woman and one of their own together kicked my precious blade away. It hopped and clanged violently across the floor for a few feet until it landed in the pile of blood. The sound didn’t stop the Big Boss. If anything, it just made him pick up his pace.
The boy curled around me like sand in a storm touched my shoulder and broke my concentration. He was furiously blushing through the pallor of his paint, filled to the brim with shame. His big dark crow-eyes and thick lashes never left the Big Boss.
He made a face like he knew he shouldn’t really be touching me. The air in my lungs left me when I saw that expression. He was a War Boy- still loyal to a fault despite it all.
“Ya gotta stand for the Ace, smeg,” he whispered, and only blushed further when he grabbed me under the bicep and yanked me off the floor like a weighed nothing.
I wondered why I expected sympathy from the child-man as I stumbled over my boots and tried to soothe my nervous breathing while the Big Boss got right in my face before I was ready.
He didn’t reek, like the others. He smelled fresh. And though his eyes were squinty and swollen... I wasn’t very scared when he got in my face. He looked too much like Maude up close for me to do much more that tighten my grip on the boy and stare right back.
He smelled like spices, that’s what it was. Old World cologne. Where the hell had he gotten that?
“She got a funny noggin’?”
The crowd reacted exactly how I did, all tilted heads and mutters of confusion. Alright, he was fucked. Old and soured grey bits, must be it. I had to swallow the instinct to ask him if he knew where he was, as I sometimes had to do with Maude. He was clearly still dangerous. I was not keen to be beaten by another man.
I remembered my Before Time manners. I hardly ever used them. Maude had tried to get those polite words to stick- yes ma’am, no sir, pardon, excuse me, I apologize, thank you very much - but growing up with gutter-mouthed Mercedes Man had quickly erased all her hard work.
The Big Boss leaned back slowly, and the room was so quiet that I could hear his old skin stretching over his muscles and the pop of what I assumed to be his bad knee.
He settled both hands over the curve of his walking stick- walking pipe? It was a tool for getting around as much as it was a weapon. And he knew that I knew so.
“Clear out!” he barked, with a tone that made my molars ache.
No one dared move for a moment. The man about to miss his fingers looked about ready to start screaming, and I did too. The boy clinging to me made a funny sound with his nose, like a nervous huff. I heard similar noises.
Someone nearby whispered something loud enough for me to hear.
I don’t wanna be the one stuck hauling her out by the hair.
The Big Boss heard it too. His eyes didn’t change, didn’t get angry, but something in his body did. He rolled his shoulders back and puffed himself out like a venomous snake, turning in the direction of the man.
With an earth-shattering burst of energy, the Big Boss swung the pipe in his hand up and into his hand, its hooked end facing outwards, his hands at its base. A glint of terrifying, silvery-clear metal- a razor, I knew that now- gleamed as he leaned far out to hook the spreader of slander around the neck.
I’m certain I heard the slice, even though I knew it was impossible. The Big Boss yanked the man forward, and the crowd around him scattered instantly.
Boots flew, hands slapped and punched at limbs in hopes to create a path, tools in belts clanged in a cacophony unlike anything I had ever heard. All the while, the Big Boss had pulled the whisperer close and was shouting something at her, pointing at me, then him. The War Boy was bleeding furiously down the back of the neck, and he, oh, he was crying.
As the Big Boss yelled at the bleeding man in his grasp, his eyes fell to the mashed up pile of meat and blood, still sitting in the middle of the room. War Boys tread all over the blood without a care; they were no longer hungry, and I couldn’t blame them. My knife, never having been shiny, was getting lost in the muck, but it seemed that the Big Boss still noticed it. The chaos seemed to give the Big Boss the encouragement to call out one more order.
“Pit! You’re with the girl!” he called, and without a care the Big Boss put a hand on the man’s chest, unhooked him from his cane, and shoved him to the floor.
The man fell with a thunk, gasping harshly, trying to regain his bearings. Another War Boy had the wherewithal to lean down and grab him by the hands, keeping his eyes low. He knew better than to look at me or the Big Boss again.
The room cleared out in under a minute.
All that was left from the scene I had just witnessed was the blood, the old man, and the tall, waif of a War Boy called Pit, standing and shaking behind me and chewing the skin of his thumb.
The Big Boss looked around for a moment, looking like a man on a mission. It was almost as if he had completely forgotten about me- he was too busy scuffing his foot in the mess on the floor. He peered around the room, looking for any lingering War Boys hiding in corners, and glared down the hall to check for eavesdroppers. With a deep, heaving breath, his taught shoulders relaxed... and he fell.
It was a very distinguished fall, I could give him that much. It was more of an uncoordinated sit than anything else. He just plopped onto his backside on the ground, probably knowing someone would be able to clean his pants for him afterwards.
As he started to fall, the boy- Pit- left me to stand alone. He didn’t reach the Big Boss before he hit the ground, but he still insisted on trying to loop his arms under the old man’s.
“Got ya boss, s’okay, don’t worry, I won’t tell no one!” Pit urged, trying to help the man to his feet.
The Big Boss just brushed him away, exhaling and instead turning his attention to the bloody handle of his cane.
“Clean up,” is all the man said to Pit as he fetched a rag where it was tucked into his trousers around the belt.
I shakily sunk to the floor and pulled my knees close to me as I watched the Big Boss clean his weapon, and Pit clean the floor. The moist, squelching sounds of meat and blood against meat and rock made me want to chunder, but I focused instead on the lingering smell of spice and metal in my nostrils and the way the Big Boss wiped away drying blood with a mix of pressure and liquid spit.
Someone had welded brass knuckles to the inside of the curve of the cane, with a thin razor lining the bumps of the brassies. I couldn’t help but stare- who had thought of such a mean tool?
The Big Boss caught me staring. He didn’t smile, but his posture remained relaxed and easy.
“C’mere. I won’t bite,” he said.
No, you claw, I wanted to say, but I managed to start shuffling forward on my bare knees instead.
I looked to Pit for some sort of guidance, but he was minding his business, cleaning and gluing his eyes to the ground. It was probably for the best that he did that, stayed quiet, but it made my stomach turn. What if he hurt me? Would Pit even do anything?
I hadn’t realized I was crying until the Big Boss spoke up again. This time, he was more firm.
“I won’t ask again, girl.”
I briskly wiped my eyes as I turned to look at the Big Boss. A part of me didn’t want to get any close, and instinct screamed to stay away, but I knew I didn’t have much of a choice. I said my prayed and rat-crawled the rest of the way towards him.
I took a seat a few feet away from him, exhaustion weighing me down enough to keep even my terror from moving me. Even if he lunged at me, I would have no means of standing, moving… going anywhere.
His bottom lip sagged with a mass that reminded me of Mary’s. He didn’t have to move his mouth for it to sit that way, either. He must have had it for years, and that was saying something, for someone as old as him. He had survived this long with it. Maybe she would too, if she wasn’t already dead.
“Hey. Hey! Focus. Look at me, not through me. Is there anything behind your eyes?!”
His voice was a screech of old tires in my ears, but it was nostalgic, somehow. It got me to sit straight, even though I wanted to pound him for implying I was empty-headed. Flighty, maybe. But I knew my worth.
I must have scowled at him, because he hummed in my direction and jerked his cane in my direction- it tapped me hard between the eyes, right where my dyed mark was lingering.
“Don’ make faces. I’ll make you fertilizer,” he scoffed when I snarled and clapped my hand over my head. “Now. You didn’t answer me- she look funny? Got a lump on her head, your kid?”
My spirit roared, and strength found me again. My hand struck his outstretched cane like a snake and slammed it to the bloodied floor, loudly enough that Pit jumped a few feet away.
It was my turn to demand attention.
I leaned in as close as I wanted to, as close as I needed to feel his stale breath on my face. I showed him my teeth, but he didn’t mirror the gesture.
“Where the fuck is she?! What did you do t’Mary?!”
My question roused a grunt out of him.
“She got a name, huh? Haven’t heard a ‘Mary’ in these parts since Ike and Turner’s days… Fuck, girls’re a pain. Let go, ya possum,” he said, yanking his cane harshly back towards him.
The sudden movement made me slide and slam my chest and forehead into the bloodied floor, as he took his time to stand back up. I did the same, but now, I was covered in proof of the crime I had committed. Even if I got Mary back intact, we would both be sent right back where we came from.
I was utterly fucked.
The blow of the floor and of the realization knocked the wind out of me, and shame gripped me as I peeled myself up from the ground. I tried to wipe the blood from me, but it inevitably just spread it around. It was useless. I was useless.
My thoughts were only confirmed by the Big Boss’ annoyed snarl.
“Early today, I get this kid brought to me,” he said, helping himself to his feet through a loud grunt. “Fucked up face, won’t last two thousand days. A girl, no less. I said ‘no more girls’, but ya get what comes, these days.”
His eyes hurt me in the way only an elder’s could, and he knew it worked, because he began to circle to me like a vulture, never moving them from my shivering mouth.
“Then, I hear about some Wretch on the loose from one’a my boys- skinny lil’ shit who started a Joe-damned riot, all on her lonesome. Couldn’t find her, she ran off. Not my business. The Rat Traps would take care of scum like her.”
Rat Traps? What did that mean? The slam of his cane against the ground with an accompanying grunt didn’t give me enough time to sort it out in my head.
He cocked his head at me and set his shoulder, the whites of his eyes flashing along with his flared nostrils. I had seen this face before.
“Now, head of my workers comes and tells me my boys is off-duty, and that there’s some ruckus in the Mess Hall. I’m thinkin’ it’s some boys scrappin’ over lost bets in the fightin’ rings.”
I smelled his breath, sour and wet, before I realized how close was. He grabbed a fistful of hair, close to the scalp- never yanking, but pulling, pulling enough to get a weep out of me.
“Turns out, some fuckin’ Wretch girl’s pickin’ fights over some worthless pup that ain’t even hers!”
A cry was ripped out of me, heart ramming against my ribs and every inch of hair standing on edge. I needed to get away, get away now , or before I knew it I’d be grabbed by my hips and shoved to my knees and pushed to the ground and--
“ Not her fault , Boss!”
A scattering of thin limbs pushed between me and the Big Boss, like spider-limbs scrambling in the sand. A sharp elbow knocked me in the sternum, but despite the ache I was suddenly behind an arm. Just past it was Pit’s bald, bowed head and two raised hands, folded together in a symbol I had already seen. A symbol of prayer, maybe. Forgiveness.
“‘S not her fault,” Pit said, his voice nothing short of a tremor. “She said she lost her pup, she didn’t want it to go. Ain’t even hers! She was watchin’ it, I mean-- I think she was, ‘s why she needs it back. She can’t have pups, no milk neither, too skinny. I’m the one who agreed t’leave, she fixed my foot and said that if I helped her find it we would be even. She didn’t force me to…”
Pit and I both hopped out of our skin. All I could hear was Pit’s wheezing breath, blood in my ears, and the Big Boss’ hand rubbing his dry, stubbled face. He was looking, but not at me. His eyes were instead on my handiwork. Though the bandages were bloodied by Pit hobble-scrambling across the dirtied floor to intervene, they were still intact and holding his broken bones together.
A deformed finger that looked as if it had been broken countless times pointed to my face, then to Pit’s foot.
“Is it true? You fixed that?”
I nodded thoughtlessly, fast too. I wasn’t going to make him wait for answers.
“What else can you do? That it? Only fix breaks?”
“N-Naw, naw! I mean, I, uh… I help mothers with their babies. Midwifery. So-- so I sew up small wounds and clean out infection alright. Can change bandages. Learned about some other stuff too. But mostly deliverin’ babies,” I said, squeezing my voice out of my throat.
I reached for my bag with two hands and held it out, shaking its contents at him. Proof.
Something clicked in the Big Boss’s eyes when I said what I did, and I wondered if this was a mistake. Pit was still crouched in his position of prayer in front of me- he too was uncertain about why these questions had just been asked- but he still stared at me from over his shoulder, like he was somehow expecting me to reassure him that everything would be alright.
The Big Boss rubbed his infected jaw a few times, before sighing, making that sound of total exhaustion again, and turning to head towards the exit.
“Pit, leave the cleanin’. Girl… you jus’ get outta here. You even got’a name?”
I was almost too busy trying not to wince as Pit used me as a crutch to stand to answer, but I managed my name. That only seemed to make the Big Boss huff out a snicker.
“Wretch-name, that’ll do it... Free now, Rush. Kid’s off your back. Go back t’wherever ya came from. The pup’s my problem now.”
The words seemed unreal as they bounced around in the echo of the empty room. Someone had said these words to me once, many people, actually. A father, a mother, a king stranger… you-owe-me’s were death sentences among the Wretched. I had to fight this.
Big words came out before I had the chance to stop them.
“What?! Ya can’t jus’ take a pup!”
“Sure, I can. You owe me, an’ you don’t seem so concerned ‘bout her. You lost her.”
I ignored the bite of his words and how they made my chest ache and my eyes burn with guilt.
“Fuckin’ ‘scuse me? I don’t owe shit! Ya can’t just take a kid from...”
I wanted to say mother, but the word never came. So I just gnawed on my lip and tried again.
“She’s little and she don’t know how t’do nothin’ yet. She needs me.”
“Don’t care,” the Big Boss said, and it seemed like he truly meant it. “You injured one’a my own. He won’t work another day, not with so many missing fingers. War Boys are few’n far between nowadays. I have no choice but t’go pickin’ from the other team.”
It was Pit’s turn to help me up, but I was feeling fighty now. Who gave this old man the right to walk all over me? Self-defense was the rule of the land, he didn’t deserve anything from me!
“Your boy attacked me first! Ya said as much! Should I ‘ave just sat there and let him sell me off?! Beat me ‘til I was nothin’ but meat’n hair?!”
“You talk too much. Shuddit, girl. This ain’t a request.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed at him. Maybe it was fear, but my guts turned in my stomach and my body could only find relief in cackling.
“You’re not my boss! Not my father, neither! What gives ya the right?! Huh? War trash! That’s all you are! Takin’ babies from carers! The Mother spits on you! Get rotten y’old fuckwit!”
The Big Boss didn’t say a word, kept walking instead, disappearing into the hall where I had come from. Maybe he was used to some form of backtalk. Maybe he knew I was right. Maybe he was just too tired to say anything.
The reaction I got was from Pit, who looked at me like I was insane, even gave my shoulder a shove as he stared at me in complete disbelief.
“You… you can’t curse the Ace out! V8, you head-damaged?! He’d smash a Boy if he spoke like you spoke!”
“‘Ace’? Well, why does ‘Ace’ call the shots?! Where’s the Wives? I only thought the Wives could give orders! Besides, he couldn’t smash me! Killin’ the Wretched ain’t allowed by War Boys no more..”
“Down there, no. Up here, though? ...no one’d find you.”
Pit gave me a side-eye I didn’t like from someone that young. It meant that even he, silly as he was for his age, knew I had fucked up somehow.
His question didn’t need any answering. A flush crossed my features, along with the heaviness of my tongue in my mouth.
I looked down at myself. The blood on my dress was making the fabric cling to me. Every bone in my body seemed to jump out of the canvas. My hair was falling out of its wrap. I was shaking. When had I started that back up again?
“...hey, no, I’m sorry! No, don’t cry, I-I was only tryin’ to tell the truth! No one’s gonna smash ya! S’okay! Nothin’s wrong! Look! I’ll clean you up b’fore you go back to the Wretch camp.”
I had never heard worry come out of a War Boy, but maybe Pit was still young enough to still be nearly-human. As tears pooled, and as my arms ached to hold a baby that wasn’t mine, the little War Boy took out a rag and a canteen of aqua cola, and without being prompted, started to wipe me down like I was one of his own.
He got my chest, my arms, my hands, even wiped down my face. Mother, he was so very little. He was taller than me, sure, but he was… a baby, truly. He looked soft and scared and reminded me more of Mary than he did myself. Watching him made me think of Lilac, for some reason. I could see her doing this for her own daughter.
It had been three days. Three days, and I was out of options. Couldn’t stay anywhere I wanted- I’d get pounded by stray War Boys looking for blood for their injured brother. I’d started a riot back in my safe haven. The Wives wouldn’t listen to someone who had spilled blood.
As the War Boy cleaned me up, I wept, but not out of fear.
I cried because I knew I was either going back exactly where I had come from… or I’d have to make a shitty deal.
I could still hear the Big Boss’s cane tapping slowly down the hall. It was fading, but I could follow the noise.
I wrinkled my nose and bowed my head, scrubbing at my eyes.
My voice roared in the empty halls, so loud that Pit sputtered and stopped wiping at my bloody cheek.
I cursed Lilac under my breath one last time and raised my eyes to the Mother.
“...let’s make a deal!”
Chapter 7: Dealin' and Squealin'
No one knew how to barter like a Wretch.
I kept telling myself that when Ace didn’t respond with anything other than a grunt and came back in my direction. In the tension of the silence, I thought of the stories of the War Boys from before.
In the early days, when War Boys weren’t called War Boys and most of them still bitched about the itchiness of the white paint, Wretched folks did their best wheeling and dealing. They were civil-like, back then, the War Boys, smiled more and shot less.
I had heard stories- women getting good and proper deals for selling flesh, sometimes even getting a husband out of it. Joe had to shut that shit down fast, because more than dirty romps in the sand were being traded out there- disease got spread around. Funny names for it. The Clap, the Drip, the Dose… People dropped like flies. Babies were born with it.
It worked out for old Joe, to separate War Boy from Wretch. Rumors spread around: that we were dirty and were purposefully doing this, to try and kill them off, one by one. That the War Boys who did come down for a night of fun were traitorous.
I had heard horrible things. Cocks were cut off and tossed from the Towers like they were bird shit. Their corpses came after.
There was good in them, good that I could use to my advantage, maybe. Pit certainly had it. Maybe the Ace did, too.
Then again… we had eaten their brothers.
There was a moral code in the early days; no eating the dead, not even when they were juicy and fresh. You didn’t know what the fuck they had on them. No one knew if you could get what they had if you ate them. Washing off their paint was a bitch, too. No one wanted to lap that up, but then, we got hungrier. It started with fingers and toes; drumsticks, they called them. Calves were hocks, stomach was bacon, rump was ham…
Eventually it came back to the cock. Folks ate that, too. Corn on the cob.
Maude never let me eat people. I remember crying, screaming about it on my worst nights as little one, pounding at her chest with my skinny arms because I wanted whatever was cooking on spits nearby, what was smelling so good. She never let me have it, even when I knew I could run and steal some. She knew it too. She’d given me the leather tongue of a boot to chew on a few times, and never got cross with me about the yelling. She wanted that good-smelling shit, too.
Roasted War Boy. A delicacy of the Wasteland I had never eaten.
But I had seen the barters, how angry and hot they got, over a tarped body buzzing with flies. If victorious, you could get a whole deadie for yourself and your crew, and you could sell off the teeth and bones.
Ace’s ashen face was back in my line of vision before I had thought of something clever to say, a smart way to open up the deal-making process. If I had any of my father in me, I would be better at this.
But I didn’t feel like I was the one that was bartering.
I felt like the bartered. I felt like the teeth, the bones. It was only a matter of time before I was ripped away and made a profit of, too.
“I need the kid. I promised ‘er mother…”
“Fact is, anyone would be glad t’find ya, turn ya in, get some extra rations for the effort. You’re nothing. You’ve got nothing.”
Mother. Mother. Shit. He knew I was a porky, just squealing away hoping some nice word would stick. What would Mercedes Man do?!
I puffed out my chest and tried to be big. It had never worked for me before, but it was War Boy lingo. I wasn’t in the Wastes anymore.
“You don’t know what I’ve got!”
I hadn’t taken off my gloves in days, worried they might get yanked from my pile of stuff otherwise. They were rancid-smelling from when Mary had pissed on them, but that didn’t matter. I ripped my right glove off with my teeth and snatched the Big Boss’s wrist.
Even his hard face went soft with the confusion of my silky fingers. No one had hands like these except the Wives. Years of lathering with petroleum jelly had done me good. One bullet left in the chamber; one more of Maude’s lessons to save my ass.
“Maybe ya didn’t hear me before. I can catch pups. I can. I’m dumb, can’t read or write Old-style, but I am fuckin’good at that. Trained by the best. I... could be an asset!”
Ace barked a laugh in my face and ripped his arm away, almost looking like he would crack back his elbow and swing. I even heard Pit start his worried peeping behind me like he was trying to cool down a fiery engine.
“Breedin’ program’s long out of commission here, girl. Might have been useful when Joe was still around. Nothin’ to catch around here anymore besides gockies.”
“I thought they called y’Ace for a reason! Road War rattle y’that badly?! I’ve seen insides come out and outsides go in; I’ve had t’yank pups from bellies! Organic’s a waste o’cola and ain’t worth his weight in scrap. I’m a long-term investment!”
“Don’t start a fuckin’ blue with me, girl! You owe me! Wives in power don’t mean shit! You answer to me!”
His eyes looked at me and saw what I was. Wretch filth, talentless even with my skill in this world of mighty engines and scars. My soft hands were worth nothing to him. Giving me back Mary was a fool’s deal. I had pegged him as being different, softened by the fight. War Boys were War Boys.
I had gone too hard on the sell. I saw that now. It didn’t matter how good I was at sewing up wounds, or replacing inside bits. If the Big Boss didn’t want me- if he could see right through my talk- then I had no chance.
“...fuck that. Bad deal.”
Pit’s voice came out with a squeak as he stepped forward, all round in the shadows except for those sharp, dark eyes. He trembled, skinny little arms like snakes, but his jaw was set and hard.
“Don’t act like a shit. Your paint’s barely dry. No right to comment on things that don’t concern you,” Ace snapped.
“When the Boss is makin’ bad choices, I get concerned!” Pit boomed, all terror but all truth. “Organic doesn’t do shit, he’s huffing away at whatever he can get his hands on these days! You act like we have a choice when we don’t! She’s not hooked on a needle or a mask like he is! She’s clever! You know she’s clever, Boss! She’s mean and stabby but she’s the full quid! You see it! Just cause she’s a girl don’t mean she’s like...”
“Fucking Christ! ”
Ace’s cane thundered to the ground, and blood splattered into our faces from the impact.
I knew the name of that Old God. My father had called out to him in a very similar way, once upon a time. It was terrifying when he did it… hands always flew.
Out of instinct, I swung my foot hard and kicked the cane across the slick floor so that he couldn’t pick it up and swing. With his limp, I’d be faster than Ace, no matter how chrome and shiny he was… or at least, used to be.
My toes tensed in my feet; I smelled my own sweat. My elbows and knees flexed as I watched Ace throw his head into his hands. He wheezed with his exhaustion and emptied himself out onto the floor between us with a shaking, strained sob.
His entire upper body trembled with the effort it took to just keep the noise within him. I was mesmerized by this unwilling performance of War-Boy-ness. I knew what he was doing; this act was familiar. If he let his face go, his entire soul would pour out of his mouth, and he’d drop dead like a spider skin. Yeah, I knew it. I knew.
Less subtle snuffles beside me tore my gaze away. Pit cried, maybe at his outburst, his shame, his fear, or just because he was taking a cue from his leader. His paint was coming off in streams and puddled in his exposed collarbone. His skin was rich and dark, just really beautiful. He reminded me of Maude.
I didn’t know what to do. I had never had a man to comfort before… but Pit was close enough to a baby. I went to him first, gently touching his arm and trying to get him to look at me, even though he tossed his head around to avoid me.
“Hey? Hey… shh, shh, it’s okay. It’s okay. Thank you. You’re such a good boy.”
That did it. He was on me, and he had his wet nose in my neck, dribbling paint and what was sure to be a juicy bush oyster all over my shoulder. He was so tall that he had to bend at the waist to be held with my arms around his shoulders. When had this one last been given good praise?
His body was warm and felt good to hold. I didn’t like his tears, but his pounding chest made me keep him exactly where he was.
“...enough, Pit. You’re practically paintin’ her.”
Pit pulled away without missing a beat, being as well-trained as he was. Ace was right. I was covered in milky paint.
I distracted myself with wiping away the mess instead of trying to look at Ace. I didn’t have the nerve. Especially not when he was forced to just stand there and stare without his cane to turn him around.
I wanted him to leave so that I could collect my shame and just hop down the Lift and disappear. I was still pretty. Maude told me that. I could still survive, if someone out there didn’t mind my skinniness, my bad mouth. I didn’t want to resort to it, but most out there weren’t like the Citadel. Men wanted Wives. I could offer that.
“The hair’ll have to go.”
I shivered. That was directed towards me. I side-eyed Ace, cautiously.
He was cool and mean like he was just a moment ago, this time analyzing me and doing a slow shuffle towards his tossed cane.
“The clothes, too. You’ll get grabbed at in that number. Don’t trust the Organic not to warm his hands on anything with a pulse.”
My throat tightened. Mother above, was this happening?
“...am I gettin’ Mary back?” I ventured hesitantly, and he scowled at me.
“Don’t push, girl. Let me think.”
It took him ages to finally reach his cane, which he peeled lifelessly from the floor and wiped clean against the leg of his pants.
“Pit, you’ll be bunkin’ with her. She’ll get chewed and shat out in a coupl’a days if she’s alone.”
Pit only snorted back the water leaking out of his dripping nose and gave a red-faced, helpless thumbs up. My protector looked more like a toddler who had just scraped his knee than anyone who could help me in a scrap, but he was friendly, gentle, too. I’d rather him than any other scarred-up asshole who came alone.
“You’ve got a price on your head,” Ace began, grimacing at my knotted hair. “You’ll be useful if you don’t look… like that.”
My heart lurched at the news. I touched my hair and felt a large, fluffy knot of it dangling by my left eye. I had to be reasonable, even if, in my vanity, I wanted to keep my thick blanket of hair. Better I sell that than something more valuable.
“That’s fine,” I said, and he cocked his head; I hadn’t realized that he wasn’t asking for my permission.
“Organic’ll oversee your trainin’. You don’t come to me, ya don’t even make a fuss when I’m near. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t know ya. You’re some kid we scooped up. If anyone hears I helped ya escape the Rat Traps, then I’ll be beat within an inch.”
That name, again. It set me off. I needed to know.
“What is tha’? Rat Trap?”
“War Boys gone over t’the Wives,” Pit said, voice guarded as he scrubbed his unpainted cheeks.
“You went over t’the Wives, didn’t ya? Otherwise, you’d be booted. I saw caravans full’a hissin’ War Pups and sick Boys gettin’ driven out after they came around. Those didn’t wanna stay.”
“They don’t take orders, they do whatever they like,” Pit spat, rubbing the back of his neck, directly over his muddled brand. “Wives want law . Rat Traps give law. Mean, fucked law. They hide ‘n corners, waitin’ for ya t’get rooted somehow, and they’ll make sure you remember the rot they deliver on ya. War Boys, we handled our own. Wives want loyalty… They call Rat Traps peace-keepers. They’re anything but that. If the Wives say ‘keep the peace’, Rat Traps pull out tongues ‘n snap necks.”
“That’s not true,” I scoffed. “It’s calm up here, orderly-like. We woulda heard rumors! Seen victims! Word travels fast through the cola pipes.”
Pit opened his mouth again to snap, eyes shiny with frustration, but Ace shut him down with a gaze.
“If ya like your fingernails where they are, you’ll do as you're told,” Ace said.
No one had told me about this, warned me. We were told the Citadel was civilized. I didn’t expect it to be all love and fireside-sharing- only fools could be that senselessly hopeful- but I imagined things might be better. Sure, corpses didn’t fly, earth-bound, like they used to... but the dead still dropped nonetheless. They just stayed up here, apparently, dangling in space like stars.
I ground my teeth into my lip and shook my head. This was asking for it. To be caught. Killed. Strung up and skinned. Maybe even made into lamps like the psychos did in the time Before.
“They know m’face, now. I sliced off fingers! They’ll eat me alive!” I snapped. “Shave me all y’want! They’ll take one look at me an’ know.”
Ace and Pit exchanged a look I didn’t like when the realization hit them. Menfolk couldn’t hide that gaze, even when they thought they were being crafty. Something was brewing in them that made my skin crawl.
“They’ll eat her alive there, too. She’s too small, Boss. They’ll sniff her out.”
“If she’s as quick upstairs as she claims she is… gettin’ the Organic out of the Blood Shed for good could be an advantage. She could save some’a our own numbers.”
“They could train the young ones! Won’t be spread so thin, that way.”
“You’ve got it. Besides, they’ll need t’get used to the world outside, whether they like it or not. She’ll be an easy introduction.”
“Who exactly is they?! ”
Ace didn’t like my tone, because he scoffed like my father used to when I was pissing him off. He just cocked his head towards the doorway and gestured for me and Pit to follow.
I didn’t know where we were headed, but I was smarter than to ask in the dead, hurried silence. The halls seemed much more looming: they wrapped around us and warped like intestines, spilling out every which way. I could never imagine myself figuring out how to navigate a place like this, not when every little chip in the wall looked the same, and how every little nook and cranny wreaked of sweat.
We must have been walking along through little side-halls of some sort, because the ceilings were low and the walls hugged us along. Ace was avoiding us being seen by anyone and everyone, maybe knowing that I looked too Wretch not to be recognized. It worried me that he wouldn’t say anything about anything, though. Strict War Boy secrecy intimidated me, especially when the War Boy in question had no real reason to be dealing in secrets at his age.
We stopped so abruptly that I nearly flattened myself into Pit’s back. There was a tiny, round little doorway in front of us, and within, around a corner, was a glowing orange light, and the sound of someone working away within. There was the cling-clang of tools and someone grumbling in low tones to themselves.
Ace glanced back at me over his shoulder and set himself straight, so that his stride wasn’t so crippled. And, like the Big Boss he was, he walked in without a problem, gesturing with the back of his hand for us to stay exactly where we were.
“Don’t serve any ol’ brown-eyed mullet that floats along. Get out, y’wrinkled fuck. Not your turf no more.”
“Shut up, you lair! This’s no open Road out here! C’mon, old man. You need a shave?”
Croaking old voices exchanged pleasantries like proper Wretched used to do when they needed a favor. Bullshitting was the same everywhere.
I strained to understand what they were talking about in the damp echo of the little hall we were in- something about ‘virgin rules’ and how the old boys new best about toeing the line and keeping things authentic. I could only guess that they meant ‘authentically War Boy’, whatever that meant.
I could tell Pit was hanging on every word. He was closer to the mouth of the little room, and seemed to be waiting. I could feel his boots grinding into the dirt below him, like he was ready to pounce.
“...ah, Clipper, I’m g’na have to call in that favor.”
The room seemed to go silent at that announcement. My blood ran cold.
I was that favor.
“Hah! Scum like worn-out Ace, offerin’ up deals like he still owns this place. Not worth it, Clips.”
“Pup, one more word and Furiosa hears all about it!”
The threat bounced off the walls and hit me like a punch. Pit even stuck out his arm, as if to shield me from the blow of the words. Both him and I had the same idea when we slowly started creeping back from where we had come from. This wasn’t worth getting the God-Killer involved over.
“What is it? Messages to send out? Phew, we haven’t done that since Joe first got his wig? You remember that?”
“What? What?! ”
“It’s nothing- cripes, you’re loud. What’d you want, Ace?”
“...someone joining the ranks.”
“Hah! That right? You’re bringin’ ‘em in faster than I can brand ‘em! Where’s the little ankle biter?”
Dread choked me when Pit, with all the tenderness he could find in his lanky body, took my small, gloved hand in his own, and led me into the light.
I jerked against him without meaning to, deciding that this was too much. I thought I felt my vision going, sliding into stars, but I swallowed my lightheadedness when my eyes met a beast’s.
He was covered in pock-mark burns from the dip of his narrow waist and all along his torso, like melted red rubber leaking down him, half-dry in some places and still fresh in others. Whatever was left of him was wrought with drawings, like the doodles Maude used to draw for me, to explain medicine without a mother around. His drawings… they showed tools and machines and fire. A man turned machine.
I followed the right side of him up to his face, hoping his disfigurement was limited to his snakelike body… but someone had done a number on his face.
His bottom jaw and mouth were sewn to the top half of his head by scars and rusted staples alone. He was mottled with badly grown facial hair, and his right eye glowed bright red.
Mother, he was one ugly fucker. And he was staring at me like he could open his mouth wide enough and swallow me whole.
“Is that all it is, then?” the animal-man scoffed, his plastic face twisting, sinister. “Really are pickin’ through scraps, aren’t ya, old man?”
He limped towards me, even though his superior, a beefy type in an apron, scolded him as he did so.
Pit tried to stay strong, but the disgusting little serpent of a man blew him away with a silent, smiling snarl. He then turned back to me, nostrils flailing.
He smelled like shit. I couldn’t have smelled much better, but he was sour, like rot. He didn’t care to even put sand to joints and scrub his stink out. I could practically taste it when he bent down at the waist like I was a child, getting inches from me.
“A breeder, too. Things’ve really gone downhill since I was on a lancer’s perch.”
He cackled quietly to himself. I saw him reaching out for a strand of hair in my peripheral. My hand flew for my knife, but my stomach dropped when I remembered that I had never plucked it from the muck.
I swung before I thought.
My gloved fist and his jaw collided before I realized I had yelped out a violent ‘ no! ’. I heard the crack, and then I felt it, right in my knuckles.
Both of us doubled over. Him, cursing and grabbing his face. Me, cradling my sore fist.
“...I don’t want to know. Sit ‘er down. I like her,” the man called Clipper said decidedly, making eyes at Pit to flank me on my left so that the beastly one couldn’t swing back.
I hobbled over to a long, narrow mattress that was lifted off the floor. I was meant to sit on it, and I did, but I couldn’t quit shaking. How many enemies was I about to make today?
I missed Mary. I wanted her with me. I could almost feel her soft little head of hair brush my cheeks and chin as Clipper went at my head with scissors and razors. The room was filled with a rapidfire hum, as well as Ace and Clipper’s murmurs.
“She was never here,” Clipper said, guiding the buzzing razor over my head, making me jump with the way the tiny teeth ate away at my locks. “Something comes up, we say the kid did it. Bribed.”
“I’d never service that! It’s crawling with lice!” the ugly thing spat at the other end of the room, clearly gearing up to fight again.
Ace kept him where he was with a look. Even though he apparently had no respect for him, the ugly one settled some, and just spat at me instead.
“We can’t have him squealing,” Ace said, never turning his eyes from the War Boy burn victim.
“I’ll keep him busy,” Clipper promised, but he was grave with worry. “What do you want with her, anyways?”
I wondered what Ace would say. That he had my kid, and I was doing him a favor? That I was valuable, maybe? That I couldn’t be worse than the Organic? That he had nothing to lose?
He glanced at me and shrugged.
“You make bad deals, these days. I’m hopin’ I’m making a good one with her.”
“Breeders are bad luck.”
It smelled like burning every time the ugly one opened his mouth. There, where he stood in the dark, it almost looked like smoke was pouring out of his mouth. His red eye glowed. He bared his teeth in a manic display of manhood. It scared me.
“They ruin everything they touch,” he continued on, spitting through his curses. “I’d kill them all if I could.”
He raised both hands in a strangling motion, but it barely worked- one of his hands, the left, was just a bloodied stump, wrapped in bandages.
He was barely in one piece. Spite consumed me.
If that angry bastard could make it… why not me?