Chapter 1: Prologue
Regardless of the number of summers I had seen or the place, the sinewy, liberating texture of lizard has always transported me back to the early days of my youth. Whether traded in exchange for muddy aqua cola that had been dug up out of the ground under the cool watch of moonlight, or caught with sticky traps of tar that had been smuggled in from Gastown, incredible things like meat appeared nearly as often as clouds did in the desolate Wasteland sky. Entire moon cycles could pass before they came sailing past, looking like pearly fire-smoke and lingering in sight for a few hours before seemingly disappearing into the blue. Dreamers hoped for rain; practical folk turned their eyes back towards the sand.
Pa was a scavenger, and one night, after days of foodlessness, he traded his favourite necklace for a bundle of six little horned lizards. The necklace was a silvery chain that was strung through a trinket he had salvaged from a wreck- it was three-pronged, and looked something like a star. From the day he had brought it back, people started respecting him. For a time, people called him ‘Mercedes Man’, though I’d never quite known why.
That evening, me, Pa, and Maude feasted in secret, huddled in our tent in the dark. I was sitting in Maude’s lap, trying to avoid getting a rash from the sand on my bare ass, and together we sucked on the lizards’ tiny bones and spat their hard bits outside the tent flap. Everyone else around us was sleeping or dead. The winds were quiet. Pa’s eyes winked moistly in the relative dark; he was crying about his necklace, or his newly filled stomach. It was hard to read people after sunset.
When I had finished my meal, the first in over a week, I irritably clung to Maude’s tunic and buried my face into her exposed skin. When she had been pregnant, she had had plenty of milk to spare, and I never went hungry. For about 500 days after Maude miscarried, I ate until I was full from her; but after she and Pa took a long trading trip to Gastown, one I was too young to walk, the milk stopped coming. I got irritable and cranky from the hunger. I still burrowed close to her breasts. Perhaps a part of me thought that if I showed her that I cared enough, the food would return.
Maude humoured me and let me paw at her chest for a little while, but she pulled away when I tried to latch.
“I haven’t got any more of that, silly,” she said, and I remember Pa’s laughter in the night.
“You’re cleverer than to go picking before a there’s been a wreck, girly,” he said, and the sand shifted under his weight as he moved closer to pull me away from Maude.
“I’m still hungry,” I mourned, unusually complaintive as I settled into his chest. A silence settled around us, one that even Pa’s rasping breath did not completely fill. We were all still hungry. In a way, Pa’s sacrifice really meant nothing, expect for a few more days of gut-wrenching hunger after that night, suffering before he scrounged together more food or Maude found work.
“No complaining or I stick you on the platform,” Pa finally said, sobered and steely. “The Immortan’ll feed you to his War Boys.”
I let out a little shriek, and Maude and Pa laughed dryly, probably because it wasn’t too far from the truth.
“She’d be sucking his gearstick before she’d be cooked. Too pretty to be food,” Maude said, coaxing her hand through the nest-like tangle of my hair.
I scoffed. “I’d bite off his gearstick and make him suck it,” I snarled, my voice barely above a whisper in the hum of the dark.
Pa’s laughter woke the neighbours.
My mother died before I had even moved from the sling on her back to the smoldering ground. My earliest memories were of sensations, rather than visual manifestations of the people I knew best. The bite of the wind during storms; the aggressive screaming of the occasional wandering crow looking for sweeter waters; my own sweat on my tongue. My first experiences were that of work, but they did not perturb me. Such realities were common in the Wasteland.
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 than easy. Our job was sacred- if we didn’t strain the water well enough, the drink remained sandpaper-like in texture 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. 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 you looked so different from them and you took so much. Standing out only made you easier to find when you did something wrong. 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. 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. Not many people wanted their pups; if they did, it was for eating, not for coddling. 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. Things stayed normal.
Then the Immortan fell.
Chapter 2: Chapter 1
My main character finally has a name!
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 fetched 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.
“You goin’ to go up, today?”
Maude always noticed my silent grumblings, whether I verbalized them or not. I rolled over towards her in the sand, huffing and fanning myself absently with the back of my hand.
“With no teeth, you sure know how to flap those fuckin’ lips, don’t y’?” I noted, and Maude’s shrill motor of a giggle coughed up her lungs.
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. 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.”
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. “I could go for maggots, right about now…”
“You could always go for maggots, you fat fuck,” I snorted, smiling a little because, yeah, they did sound good, nice and juicy.
“’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. Through the thick leather of her gloves, I could feel the strong knuckles 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, offering me a harsh flick on the temple when I made a dismissive noise. “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 people 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.
“I am not soft. I just like havin’ you about, you’ve got a reputation! Folks respect the Big Momma Pup-Catcher,” I said. “Maybe you should be the one goin’ up on the Lift.”
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’t be up there? Folks thought it was shine when the Immortan was around, and all they got from the deal was a bit of shade. Ain’t worth it t’me.”
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, that smeg-faced shit. 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 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.
“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?!”
“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 collected my things in a quiet rage. I needed to go. 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. If I was going to be screamed at, the harsh voice of an Imperator or an Ace would be a fine change.
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, gloveless, lovingly brushed the back of my head. It felt good, but my focus was stubborn, and I would not relent just yet.
“…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 of 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, I 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, like Maude liked most things.
Maude’s hands worked quickly, and before long, my entire head of stringy brown 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, but I couldn’t be sure. Most things that might have been shiny in the Citadel were rusted in the Wasteland.
Her silky fingers squeezed my shoulders. I felt her lips kiss my cheek. “Don’ let anyone jerk you around like a manual gearshift. You’re an auto-drive, yeah, girly?”
“’Course. Shiniest auto-drive pup-catcher in the Wasteland, I am.”
“Well, second to me, stupid. Don’t forget that.”
“Shove it, rust-bucket.”
She laughed again, that lovely laugh, and eased me up with one arm. 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 were two tiny packs that I had strapped to my thigh. In there, my red and yellow ochre powders- useless, but pretty. My own personal war paint.
Maude tugged 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.
Maude retrieved a bowl of mixed, muddy yellow ochre from her alter on the ground. It had been our sacrifice to our Mother Goddess- a little aqua cola for good luck and prosperity.
“You are goin’ t’blow them all away,” she said, dipping her fingers the paint.
“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. She used to wear the paint, when we went pup-catching, but she had insisted I start putting it on. I liked the pampering but didn’t have the energy to show it. “You got your knife?”
“I ain’t a baby. ‘Course I got my knife,” I sighed. I wouldn’t miss Maude’s constant useless questions.
“Then you’ll be okay.” She took her fingers away, leaving my tan skin cool from her touch. As she turned away, I thought I saw the shine of aqua cola in her eyes, but I ignored it. Didn’t want to cry my paint away, after all.
“Alright, well, bye, then,” I said, a little awkwardly, pulling back the flap of the tent. In the sunlight, Maude’s skin glowed bright and rich, and her white hair became cloudlike. She was just absolutely breathtaking, really. “I’ll visit.”
“Nah, Rush, you won’t.”
The Lift seemed a distant familiarity in my mind. 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 her, 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.
Beside me, a mother lifted her young pup onto the platform, but stayed on the ground. She was only about 900 days old, and though she was able to stand solidly enough without her mother’s help, the impressive tumour growing just above her right eyebrow was significantly obstructing her vision and causing her to hop nervously from foot to foot.
The mother, who was missing an arm and had the nastiest case of gangrene I had ever seen, was worryingly gazed between me and the pup.
I knew what she was doing- sending her pup up, Old Citadel style, for the hope of something better. Pa nearly did it with me.
It was all about numbers, in the Wasteland- how much water was left to drink, how many bellies there were to fill, how many bodies left to share or bury. No matter what the Wives did to try and help, giving us whatever supplies they could, we still struggled hard. It was a constant battle to get closer to the supplies, to the aqua cola. She was just another number, the little pup. It wasn’t my place to let mother know that it was most probably the same up there, too. If there was one thing Pa taught me, it was to never instruct people on how to raise their child until you could see bruises.
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.
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.
Chapter 3: Chapter 2
Rush makes a friend... sort of.
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, grabbing her attention. She was busily sucking her thumb, but she seemed perfectly aware of my presence. I held out my hand to her despite the bustle around us, and she quickly grasped it with her free hand.
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 grasped my hand seemed clever, though. I delighted in her pup-soft skin.
“Did your Ma tell y’why you’re here?” I asked, slowly and as concise as I could make it, my eyes unable to 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.
When she took too long to respond to my first question, I huffed and tried again. “Alright, then, pup. You 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. I followed her gaze and sobered drastically.
A War Boy, all white paint and scars, stared down at us from his towering height above, casting his hard gaze down on us, scrutinizing. 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. Though his expression was hardened, he did not strike fear into me as another, more robust Boy might have. He was a thin thing, barely past his 6000 days, still growing past the awkward tune-up most male pups got from puberty. He was no real threat.
We regarded each-other, and the longer he stayed, the redder his face got as his eyes lingered on mine. I couldn’t tell if that was heat, anger, or the other heat. The thought made me gag.
I 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 ribs.
My insult seemingly stilled his redness. Out puffed his chest, and his rounded face twisted up in what I could only assume was his attempt at an intimidating display.
“Is that yours?” he said, gesturing to Mary with a cock of his chin; I noticed that the underside of his chin was accidentally unpainted, but I said nothing. He must have just started wearing a full, proper coat of paint.
I glanced down at Mary, who had her face half-buried in my shirt and was making upsetting whining sounds.
“No,” I said. “She’s some Wretch’s. Her ma done stuck her on the Lift and sent her up. Don’t know what to do with her.”
The War Boy’s face softened, and his youth returned tenfold. Though he did not move from his post, but a few feet from me, I could tell he was itching to give Mary a little looking-over.
“Probably wants her to work with us. Can’t blame ‘er,” he said boastfully, and he grinned so hard I nearly lost sight of his eyes behind his proud cheekbones. “Chromer than Ferrari’s, us. Everyone’s flockin’ to get the paint.”
Ferrari. I had heard that word somewhere distantly, perhaps one of Pa’s sayings. I liked the sound of it. It rolled off the tongue like a dust storm.
“Heard y’all are under new management, these days,” I said, gathering Mary up and into the crook of my right arm and hoisting her up and against my hip, where she restlessly wrapped her legs around me. The War Boy rubbed the back of his neck and lowered his eyes.
“Yeah. Not allowed to do Rusted stuff no more, not without the Sisters’ say-so. These rules, they got me all shaky-like inside. Stuff’s changed so fast.”
“What d’ya mean, ‘Rusted stuff’?” He glanced back up at me- no, at my paint- , but a stranger’s booming voice bounced harshly against the metal reinforcements of the tower’s entrance.
“Pit! Quit lingerin’ an’ move your parked ass! Joe almighty!”
The War Boy, Pit, groaned loudly in respond and tossed his bald head back dramatically. “Oh, cool your fuckin’ engines, Fuse! You’re sourin’ the air!”
Pit turned back to me and smiled again, his prominent Adam’s apple bobbing in his skinny throat. “I can take ‘er,” he said, jerking his head down at Mary again, who was getting heavy on my hip. “Lost more than a few of us durin’ the Road War. She’d be good enough.”
I felt Mary’s little hands tighten around the strap of my bag, and though her grip was warm and sweet, I kept my focus on Pit.
“…what’m I gettin’ out of it?” I asked, and his nose curled in confusion. His arms crossed defiantly, brandishing an impressively detailed scar of what looked to me a wrench.
“If you wanna bargain, go t’Bartertown,” Pit said dismissively. “I ain’t givin’ you spares, wretch.”
“Fuck off, smeg-face, I can find ten people that would be willin’ to give m’an entire goanna to myself for ‘er. She’s bright, brighter than you, that’s for sure.”
His expression thundered, but once again, he displayed that foreign restraint that was beginning to bother me to the point of discomfort. “An’ I could find ten Boys willin’ to gut you for ‘er, too. Quit playin’ smart, it ain’t the Wasteland up ‘ere.”
“It’s Wasteland everywhere, now, no matter what Joe put through your head! All you War Boys are on neutral, rollin’ around whenever someone stronger than you gives you a good enough shove. Everythin’s dead out there, and it looks like it’s just as dead up here too. Now you want ‘er, or no?”
Pit huffed and grumbled something below his breath, but it sounded low and somewhat garbled, something foreign. It seemed even he wasn’t completely Citadel-bred, either.
He hiked his low-rise work pants higher on his hips and stared at me crookedly, like he had lizard bone stuck between his front teeth, and huffed hard. He waited. I waited.
“…rusted-ass bolts for brains, you’re goin’ t’ get kicked for talk like that.”
I smiled through my sweat. I had broken him.
“What d’you want? Extra rations, aqua cola?” he said, lowering his voice to a murmur and shuffling closer. Despite his hesitance, he seemed more than ready to get me what I needed. Like Pa used to say: once you’re under the hood, ain’t no one that can hide the engine from view.
“Fuck me with a jack, pup, that’s useless. I’ve gone long enough with that shit to live without it. I want a job, a good one, in the Blood Shed.”
Pit broke away from our circle of relative public secrecy to laugh, voice cracking a little with the hilarity of it all, hilarity I couldn’t locate. His laughter smothered me- instead of waiting for him to finish, I reached up towards him, grabbed him by the earlobe, and yanked.
He yelped like a wounded dingo as I brought him back down to eye level; even Mary, who had been quietly watching the entire situation from her view at my side, seemed delighted and giggled quietly at the sight of Pit squirming.
“Does it look like I’m joking, smeg?” I hissed, ignoring the crushing and pressure of his strong hands on my forearm, trying to push me away.
“That’s Organic’s turf! I can’t just bring you, she’s gotta pick you!” he wailed, finally getting his thin fingers wedged tight enough between my own to force me to let go of him.
“’She’? Who is ‘she’?” I demanded, watching him rub his sore ear- his white paint had come off on the fingers of my glove, displaying his the dark skin beneath his cover-up, darker than even Maude’s.
He snuffled to himself, and all at once he made a complicated expression of sheer veneration and wordless frustration.
“Sister Capable. She looks over all the new workers at the Blood Shed, makes sure Organic’s not stealin’ bodies t’cook up for trade,” he said, and my blood ran cold.
A Wife. Mother almighty, I was absolutely shitting myself.
I took a page out of Pit’s book and, despite my anxiety, set my shoulders and puffed out my chest. “Shine, War Boy. One chat with her Majesty, and a bed tonight, and you’ve got yourself a new recruit.”
Pit’s painful face shone with a new joy as he eagerly pointed a finger between me and Mary, who I could feel beginning to doze against my shoulder despite the excitement.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah! No problem, I’ve got it. I-I can get you a date with ‘er tomorrow mornin’, real early! Aw, the Ace’ll sure rev up when he hears this!” he squealed, turning on his heel and motioning carelessly at me to follow.
I fell sluggishly behind Pit as he and another handful of young War Boys began leading me to their home in the Third Tower. 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 every one. 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.
As we padded through a length of dark and dank corridors, I was positively bombarded with both questions and slurs by Pit’s crew: “Why’re bringing you along, huh? You ain’t got nothing for us.” “Pup-catcher, huh? You must see a lot of ignition keys, sittin’ between girls’ legs all day!” “I am not sharin’ a bed with her! Don’t all Wretched got mites?” I answered to all and none by nodding and grunting when I could. For the first time in a long time, I just wanted the day to end.
We arrived, after a decent walk, to a sizable room fit for the small crew of eight Boys to share together. To my surprise, only two things filled the room: a small fireplace to keep the place warm (which explained why the room smelled so damn smoky), and one long, thick scrap piece of fabric on the floor. Save a few of the Boys’ personal belongings, not much lingered in the room. It was positively depressing.
“We rotate rooms lots, depending on how good we do in a month,” Pit explained as he took a seat on the impressive makeshift rug, kicking off his boots. “We would’ve gotten better, if somebody hadn’t traded our last decent set of booster cables for half a wallaroo leg!”
Pit got a solid punch in the jaw from another boy, much bigger than he, all muscle and lean fat. “I need fuel for this cycle! You wouldn’t get it, I can barely even call you mediocre!”
“Mediocre, Tin? I just got a new us a new Pup. Kiss my ass,” Pit snarled, before rolling over onto his stomach with a sigh.
I set Mary down and, despite the sun only now setting outside, got down with her, curling onto my side and watching the easy rise and fall of her chest. She would be a Great War Boy, an Ace, maybe even an Imperator. She was going to be witnessed by all, all except her mother.
As the half-men beside me snored, I folded my head into my arms and wept away my paint. What was the use of being witnessed if those who put you before everyone else’s view were blind?
Chapter 4: Chapter 3
Sometimes, to get where you want to go, you have to turn in circles. Rush learns that the hard way.
My sleep was near-always dreamless.
Pa had always told me that dreams only came because of one of two things: either one wasn’t working hard enough, and had enough energy for the mind to wander in sleep, or one was truly in a world of pain. After he had lost his necklace to the hands of hunger, he told me he had dreamt of the shiny car that the trinket had once adorned for weeks. As far as I knew, he had never dreamt of me.
Despite my exhaustion, and despite what I had originally thought was some form of emotional control, I dreamt, if only for what seemed to be a moment.
Pa was there, but we did not speak- we were sitting at a wreck, the rubbish left behind after a car had gotten engulfed in flame, 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. Though Pa was definitely close enough to save the passenger pinned beneath metal and rubber, 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 mirror; when I stared into it, I saw absolutely nothing. I wailed.
Pit’s hand smacking harshly across my mouth woke me with a start.
I thrashed beneath his fingers, but he did not release me, my grogginess quickly drifting away as I struggled to sit up in the dark. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but I figured he had woken himself up to get me moving. He was a whiny pup, but at least he was punctual.
“Joe be damned, shut up!” he hissed, and from the dying coals of the little fireplace, I could see nothing but the somewhat reflective quality of his white paint. He paused for a moment in the silence, and when he was sure he wasn’t going to receive a walloping for being too loud, he exhaled deeply with relief and sat back on his heels.
Regardless of his intentions, I leaned over as far as I could and flapped my hand a little, where I thought I might hit him; I clipped him in the chin with the back of my hand, and I heard him wince, which left me satisfied enough.
“You never wake someone up like that, smeg,” I said, rolling blindly to my knees and straining in the night to mind my boots. “What if I had been dreamin’ of murd’rin’ someone, huh, got real crazy-like? You wouldn’t have stood a chance, if I was real mad.”
Pit made an indignant noise. “I’m plenty strong. Work in the shops all day, fixin’ cars, gotta be strong for that. I woulda jus’ locked you under my arm and put you right back t’ sleep.”
“Psh, shine! I wouldn’t have minded the rest,” I snarled, making sure he could hear the roll of my dark eyes. “Why so early, anyhow? Her Majesty ain’t awake yet.” I could hear Pit get up and grab at something heavy and canvas-like; my heavy bag landed in my lap with a dull thump half a moment later. Certainly some War Boy silent-talk for ‘start moving faster, rustnut’.
As he sleepily stumbled to the door and as I got up and stepped over Mary, I heard him make another rude sound, a sleep-drowned chuckle that almost made him sound like a man. “Can’t take you t’Capable like that, can I? We’d be tossed out like broken parts.”
My mouth fell open and my brows trembled in frustration. “What’s wrong with m’as I am?” I demanded, passing him in the doorway and stepping out into the hall, which had been slightly better lit with a handful of handmade torches.
I could see Pit’s eyes dilate in the new lighting; I could also tell me was fighting hard against a broad smile as his gaze landed on my face.
“Don’t you say a word, pup, or I’ll stain that pretty paint job,” I grumbled, rubbing my eyes clear of grit and coming away with streaks of yellow on my soiled gloves. Perhaps I could use a little cleaning up, a tune-up or two. I had once chance with the Wife, and looking like any ordinary wretch when I was supposed to be something to be witnessed wouldn’t do me any favours.
“Where are we goin’, anyways?” I asked, and Pit gave me another smile. Irritating pup.
“Aqua cola rations. Gonna get that yellow shit off your face and make you look chrome.”
I didn’t speak to Pit as we walked, but I regarded him as he led me about, his footfalls loud and distinct against the stone ground. He was fulfilling his part of the deal, certainly, but something about the way he was going about it threw me off something horrid. A place to sleep, some proper-like meetings with a Wife, and free aqua cola? Perhaps he liked the attention of a girl, something he could brag about to his fellow shop-rats during the workday; maybe he would jack up the price of payment for such a favour, and claim Mary wasn’t enough after setting me up to meet a Wife.
Pit wasn’t being generous. He wanted something, they always did.
While the darkness and the required quiet we forced to uphold were smothering us, obliging us to be slower and less effective in the early hours than we might have liked, Pit knew his way about like he knew the gas pedal on a car. It was difficult to sense where he was taking me, at first, but when we reached a set of guarded doors, I knew we were more fucked than a compass in an electric storm.
Like Pit, the pair of guards were Boys, but they weren’t as soft and round as the sociable little mechanic. They were just enormous. While Pit matched both in height, these men were built like war machines, all muscle and battle scars, no awkward mismatched limbs lengths or youthful chub. The sight of them supremely terrified me but left me oddly excitable, the same excitement that accompanied my childhood filching habits. Truly, I didn’t hate it.
The Boy on the left did not even allow Pit to get a word about before he released a manic snarl from the base of his throat; instantly, Pit’s hand shot out to put something between me and the guard, and I slammed a hand to the knife at my hip. I couldn’t see over Pit’s shoulder, but I didn’t exactly want to look. I thanked the Mother for the shadow keeping my cowardice a secret.
“Not dawn, not open. You know the rules, slit-head,” the snarling guard said. Pit seemed spooked, but he spoke up regardless.
“I-I know! I know the rules. It’s not for me, uh…”
“Take your mediocre wretch-whore somewhere else,” the other guard snapped. My back stiffened with the insult of it all.
“Hey, fuck you, war fodder, I ain’t the most mediocre one here!” I growled, and in the torchlight I saw the guard’s face shift like weather on storm nights. I set my feet and shoulders as he approached and prayed for nothing worse than a broken nose. My lip quivered. I smelled my own sweat.
“No, no, no!” Pit exclaimed, moving to shield me completely now as he backed me away from the pair. “No, she’s gonna help! She’s gonna work with Organic! Gonna get our mates fixed up! She's gonna see Sister Capable, we need some cola to fix her busted face, is all!”
Pit turned to the approaching guard, who was slowing a little, just barely shuffling now. I could see his eyes watering a little, but he didn’t make a sound.
“F-Flint, man, she’s gonna go see Zipper! Don’t you wanna see Zipper tuned up again?”
“Don’t fucking talk about Zipper!” Flint, the watery-eyed one, roared, and the other guard quickly came to his rescue, pulling him back towards the door and wrapping his arm around his bare waist, their temples touching as Flint bowed his head to sob a little.
It seemed that, behind closed doors, the War Boys were more wrecked from the War of Fury Road than they ever let on to the folks outside their ranks. I realized that I was in the presence in something as rare as green stuff in the desert. Seeing a War Boy do anything else but snarl and snap was altogether horrifying.
If those who had seen carnage and violence could snap like twine under the sharp edge of a bad memory, what the fuck was I getting myself into?
The voice of the guard comforting Flint was a loud rip in the echoing halls of the tower. I pushed Pit away despite the deaf shaking of his head and stepped forward.
After knocking foreheads with Flint, a gesture of the Wretched that I had no idea had been carried over to the Citadel, he stepped up to me and hovered inches from my face. His height, like Pit’s, was so impressive that he had to bend over in order to get a good look at me. He looked tired, though I doubted it was because of his long night shift.
“You any good at doctorin’, wretch?”
The air whistled as I inhaled sharply through my nose. “Better than Organic.”
“That ain’t hard.”
“Then why aren’t you kickin’ tail in the Blood Shed, War Toy?”
It was only then that I realized how soft Pit truly was.
The first blow hit me solidly across the mouth, and from then on, everything was a blur of fire and blood.
The War Boy hit me in every soft spot I think he knew how to reach- stomach, temples, throat, knees, elbows. Every blow was accompanied with a word from the War Boy, a curse or a demand that ended up forming a sentence I couldn’t remember. I tasted metal and saw red, getting so bloodied that it reached a point where I couldn’t tell whether it was coming from me or him. He was trying to get me to scream, saying things like ‘bark for me, smeg!’, but I was so winded and breathless that I couldn’t even get a sound out. It just left him with more of an excuse to beat me. I struggled myself to get my hands on his face, to pluck one of that fuckhead’s eyes out, but he was so strong, I could barely even fit my palm across his face, especially with the slip of my gloved. My muscles cried under the strain and the lack of air, and soon, I could see everything starting to slow and darken a little. I could see his punches coming real gradually now, but I wasn’t quick enough to move from them. The pain started fading, too- that’s when I knew I was really screwed.
The War Boy screamed and bared his teeth, so I spat blood in his eye. A piece of tooth came with it. I smiled, and he was gone.
I don’t really remember what happened between the fight and waking up. At certain points, I managed to open my eyes, and thought I recall seeing something, everything was so weird and fluid and fuzzy and harsh that I couldn’t bare to stay awake for very long.
Stupid War Boy, getting in my face. Stupid Rush, getting all silly and prideful. It seemed big words didn’t work like they did in the Wasteland, where most were too weak to even raise their fists. Note to self, as Pa would say, I needed to shut my dumb trap.
I only woke back up at around noon. Well, I thought it was noon. I couldn’t really tell, but everything was so damned bright behind my eyelids that I figured that was the only time that made sense. Even the sun had come out to giggle at me.
I tried to raise my hands over my eyes, but even curling my fingers set my arm on fire. I groaned, and someone awkwardly pat my bruised bicep. It had to be Pit. Only teenage boys could be so bad at offering simple comforts.
“…smeg-face,” I seethed, my head swimming so much that I couldn’t tell on which of my sides I was laying.
“You’re really fucking stupid,” Pit said, laying down across from me and putting his arm around my waist. All was quiet, so we must have been back in his crew’s bedroom. Back where I had started. My stomach flipped with the thought.
I could feel his breath on my hand, so I stretched out my fingers to tap his mouth. He had a scar just above his lip, like I did. I smiled despite how much it hurt to move my face.
“Clever pup,” I breathed, and he moved a little closer. He probably hadn’t been held in a long time. His crew didn’t seem to like him much. Poor little pup, poor little Pit.
I was hungry, and hurting. I wanted Maude. I wanted to see the Wife. I couldn’t move.
“Don’t cry,” Pit said, and I felt his clumsy fingers scrub my face. I was so loopy that I didn’t even realize I was leaking aqua cola.
“I’m so mediocre,” I blubbered, wanting so desperately to open my eyes, but finding they were so swollen that I could barely blink. Pit didn’t say anything, but he pulled me in and tucked me into his chest, all careful-like. Such a good pup. So gentle.
“Yeah…” he said, and he patted the space between my shoulder blades. “Yeah, wretch, you really are.”
Chapter 5: Chapter 4
Two updates in one day cause I have a three-day weekend and have time for such things. In this chapter, Rush almost finds out if there is a Valhalla.
ALSO, BRIEF WARNING: THERE IS MENTION OF RAPE IN THIS CHAPTER, PLEASE BE CAREFUL FRIENDS.
Four days passed and I never felt well enough to see the Wife.
During my time bedridden, Pit seemed to be the only one of his crew and in the Citadel itself willing enough to spend his hours around me. While I could not particularly say that he kept me safe (I was physically kicked and punched off of the crew’s shared mattress on my second night in their quarters), he did have enough decency to watch out for my wellbeing as I healed.
In the beginning, when I could barely move my jaw, he chewed up his rations and forced them past my lips with his crooked fingers. Once I was able to sit up, he patiently gave me sips of aqua cola and helped me shit and piss by holding up my weak core and turning away. He even slept at my side, away from the warmth of his crewmates, just to make sure I wouldn’t be beaten up further in my sleep.
Pit was a mystery. I could tell through the way he longingly gazed at his crew, who sometimes fought but always laughed it off, or who even occasionally traded subtle affections and loving head taps. In the dead of night, when I couldn’t sleep because of my pains, I could feel him bury his face into my neck and gingerly trace my ribs through my shirt. I let him do so, and pretended I didn’t notice. I knew how it felt to be abandoned too young.
If Pit hadn’t been feeding me, I figured that I would have probably been dead already. I slept more and more, and my bruises remained stubbornly black and painful of my dry skin. It had gotten to the point where Pit had begun waking me up every so often during the day, if only to make sure I hadn’t died.
The morning of my fifth day was no different.
Pit sat me up, his chest against my back, in order to wake me up. It was better than him giving me a whacking across the face with his calloused hands, but I certainly didn’t appreciate the sudden vertigo it gave me. Before I could even properly open my eyes (which still sported dark mark, but less swelling), I could hear him enthusiastically chewing his morning meal.
“Not hungry,” I grumbled, head lolling back against his chest and eyes falling shut again. It was getting uncontrollable. I had seen this before, in other wretches. My muscles were tired, and though my brain still occasionally lingered on seeing the Wife, on working in the Blood Shed, the thought of remaining asleep on the floor was sounding more and more agreeable with every passing hour.
“Don’t care,” Pit said, offering me a bit of chewed jerky on his fingers. I shook my head, but he grabbed my sore chin and forced my mouth open. Chewing got me tired. When would he let me sleep some more?
“Quit feedin’ her, smeg. You don’t want the food, you give it to someone who’ll eat it,” the Boy called Tin said. He tolerated Pit the most out of the entire crew, but he still hated him something fierce.
“She’s eatin’ it, Tin! Fuck off!” Pit snarled impatiently, though I too was becoming less tolerant of Pit’s forceful behaviour.
I whimpered and pushed away his hand when it came at me again with more food. I just wanted sleep. Lots of sleep. Sleep would make me feel better. That’s what I told the mothers, when they would have their pups. Lots of cola and lots of sleep keeps mama and baby from six feet deep.
“Stop that!” he hissed, easily pulling my fingers apart with his free hand and shoving another mouthful of food past my teeth. “You wanna die, shithead, is that it? You wanna see Valhalla?! Cause this is a soft fuckin’ way to go!”
I had heard that word a lot lately, Valhalla. My brain was too muddled to make much sense of it, after the fight, but I liked the way Pit said it, with fiery veneration. Hearing the word made me feel safe, somehow. If Pit liked it so much, then it couldn’t be so bad, now could it?
“Smeg? You have to drink, now,” he said, holding up something shiny in front of my eyes. I recognized what it was, but I didn’t understand where the drink was coming from. I reached for the circular scrap and wrapped my fingers tightly around it. Pa would like that, for home. He liked shiny things. Made for good sales in Bartertown.
“You can’t have that,” Pit explained, gently pulling my fingers away from the new treasure, but I was unrelenting. Pa would get mad if I didn’t bring something home for him to sell. If you don’t eat tonight, it’s cause you didn’t earn your keep, that’s all.
“But I need it,” I sobbed, scared of Pa’s belt and big hands. He made me like this. He made me crippled.
Pit yanked it from my hands, and I screamed, beating my angry fists into the knees that were at either side of me. His arm came ‘round my waist, and I felt him curl into me, whispering things to me. I couldn’t make them out.
By the time my anger had mellowed into further exhaustion, the other boys had gone, leaving nothing but threats and angry glares. If Pit missed another day, he would have to be reported to the Ace. Bringing Mary to the War Boys’ cause could only offer him so much time.
Where was she? She wasn’t with this crew anymore. Maybe she needed something from me. My hands itched to pick her up. Where was my baby? I wanted my baby!
My arms rocked the scrap of tin in my arms, and I heard the sloshing of liquid come from the inside of it. Babies didn’t sound like that. I was worried. It needed to be checked over by someone who knew newborns. I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have milk for it.
“It’s sick,” I said to no one, and I felt Pit’s hands shift around me- one, to my lower back, and the other, under my knees. “It doesn’t have a mother. I didn’t have a mother.”
“Me neither,” Pit said, offering me a smile as he picked me up, but his paint was running and I could see the dark skin beneath. “I need you to be quiet now, smeg.”
“Yes,” I said, gazing down at the baby in my arms. It looked like me, I think, only all distorted. “The baby’s sleeping.”
Pit began running.
Even though we was jostling me and the baby around rather strenuously, the even pace of his steps got me drowsy again. I heard the clatter of metal; when I looked back to my arms, the baby was gone.
I wanted to cry. I couldn’t. No aqua cola came out.
By the time Pit stopped running, there were a lot of folks around us, and I didn’t recognize the place. Perhaps these people were all coming to see me. They must have baby problems. I could fix baby problems. I was real good with pups.
A woman approached me and Pit. She had fire-hair, all piled high on the top of her head, and the palest skin I had ever seen. It hurt my eyes to look at her. She was real pretty, though.
She opened her mouth and said something at me, but I didn’t understand much. I was cold, now. Real cold. She spoke again.
“Hello,” she said, smiling and baring every one of her pearly teeth. So beautiful. “What’s your name?”
More silly words.
“Cold,” I said, and reached out for a strand of her loose hair. It didn’t feel hot. I didn’t understand, but she was awful sweet with me. She took my hand and pinched the skin; we both watched it stick straight up in the air.
Pit said something, and she said something, and Pit said something again, and she sounded real worried. Maybe he was telling her about the baby.
“…didn’t mean to drop it,” I explained through the clouding of my vision. “Pit said I couldn’t have it.”
The lady smoothed my forehead and nodded at me. “Do you know where you are?”
That was a strange question, but I knew the answer. “Wasteland,” I said, and she made a strange face, like one Pit made sometimes when I tried to explain baby-catching to him.
“No,” she said patiently, smiling all the way through. “This is New Citadel.”
Citadel. Joe. Immortan? Work, aqua cola. Why?
“I don’t want to see Joe,” I said, and she laughed a little. I liked making the pretty lady laugh.
“Joe isn’t here, friend,” she said, and I smiled as Pit put me down. We had moved again. When had we moved? Lots of moving, in New Citadel. I wanted to sleep.
“I don’t like Joe. Never enough aqua cola for Pa and me and Maude. I have to dig it up. And then I get beaten.”
“Who beats you, friend?”
“Jericho. He put his gearstick in me, once. I didn’t want it. Is Jericho here? I don’t want to see Jericho.”
“No, friend, Jericho isn’t here. I need your name, what’s your name?”
I wanted to throw up, but nothing came up. I was having trouble remembering. Maybe I was dying. Maybe I was going to see the Mother.
I closed my eyes, and everything got real quiet.
I liked the silence.
I awoke with a start two days later, and thought to myself, Rush, you’ve really fucking done it this time, you mediocre rust-for-brains.
I felt good. Not great, but greatness was a privilege in the Wasteland. My physical state of being was not my issue- it was my surroundings that threw me for a loop.
Tall, grey walls of raw rock formed the rough shape of a room, though really it seemed like nothing more than a giant pocket in the middle of a busy hallway. The light from above shone a pale white, casting a bluish hue across the entire space. While it made everything quite visible, it was also dark enough to offer a soothing effect on everyone within the room. And, yes, according to what I saw, it looked like everyone in the room with me needed soothing.
Bodies upon bodies of healing people were cluttered around me like a mass grave. Some were unmoving; others were sitting up and chatting with friends. Folks wearing dark green, such a strange colour to see in such a quantity, shuffled around and checked on those calling for aqua cola or a change of sheets. I retained the deep, carnal desire in me to curse my way back to the Wasteland.
Oh, I had made it to the Blood Shed, alright. I was a fucking patient.
I sat up with energy I hadn’t had in months and stomped to my feet, violently searching for my boots. I still had my ochre pouch on me, thank the Mother, but all my other shit was gone.
“Fucking mediocre cunt-faced little—where the fuck are you, Pit?!”
I silenced the entire room for a brief moment, but when I got no responses other than groans and broken laughter, I began stomping off towards where I thought the exit was.
I walked about three feet before a sharp pain in my collarbone stilled my anger and coaxed a yelp from my lips. When I glanced down to brush away whatever insect had given me a pinch, my fingers instead felt the texture of smooth metal. My eyes followed the needle all the way back to what looked to be a clear rubber container of aqua cola.
Even leaving the damned Citadel wasn’t simple, it seemed. They got me hooked like a toy hanging from the driver’s mirror.
I fiddled with the metal, tried hard to pull, but I was still too weak to get much progress. When I finally resolved to using both my hands, my grip was loosened by a very smiley, freshly painted War Boy. Fucker, leaving my bedside to get painted up again.
“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” Pit said, and gave me a good shove to sit me back down on the floor.
“What was, smeg?” I demanded, peeling off my gloves to check the state of my precious hands. Damn, even my nails had been clipped.
“Gettin’ you to the Blood Shed and avoidin’ Organic altogether, all while gettin’ you tuned up. You can thank me later.”
I rolled my eyes and gave him a good punch in the gut. To my delight, he was instantly winded and had to bend over as he laughed.
It was good to be back in working condition.
Chapter 6: Chapter 5
Rush meets a Wife and gets very enthusiastic about it.
Though I certainly would never be as strong as any of the well-fed war-machines that were the War Boys, even one as soft and gentle as Pit, I could never imagine myself rolling over and taken what was given to me like car in the shop. Being on auto-drive was necessary for my survival; taking things into my own hands, at my own accord, would be the only way I could make a name for myself here.
Once I had regained some more strength and eaten, I was able to rip the hook-shaped needle from the surface of my skin once Pit had looked away from me, distracting himself with the sight of a pretty green-clad nurse and his swollen chest muscles. It hurt enough to make me pierce my lower lip with my teeth, but somehow, in all of his mediocreness, Pit didn’t notice. I was thankful for his youth and inability to concentrate when faced with distant possibility of sex. What a silly pup.
My success in freeing myself from the bindings of the Blood Shed did not last long- the blood seeping through my shirt was a dead giveaway to what I had done, and soon Pit was panicking and trying to stifle the blood with his own bare hands. I managed to shove him away with a few well-placed palms to the chin, and after realizing I wasn’t pleased with him, he sat back crossed-legged and lowered his eyes. War Boys were trainable, if not a little difficult to work with.
I didn’t speak to Pit for a long while. He felt bad, I could tell, but no matter what he did, I didn’t really give him the time of day. He had lost my shit. He said that the Organic always worked like that- that he wouldn’t let you stay until you gave up something for a bed. He was awful sorry, he kept explaining, but I was real pale and he wasn’t sure I would make it through the night without the needle, so the boots and bag needed to go.
Pit wouldn’t give away my knife and paints, though. He thought it was stupid that I liked them so much, but since they were both beloved to me and useless to Organic, he didn’t try and trade them away. He still had some grey bits between his ears, it seemed. It gave me hope for a soft thing like him. At least he was clever.
By noon, I was up and walking perfectly, marching the length of the Blood Shed and observing silently. I had originally heard that the Blood Shed was a place of horrors- that Organic ran the place like a maggot farm, leaving bodies to rot in the sun and then feeding whatever was left to the other patients.
Maude had put ideas in my head.
The Big Momma Pup-Catcher, for the first time in a long time, was just wrong.
The place was spotless, for one thing, unsettlingly so. Despite it all being too cramped for the space and a little rank-smelling, it was free of roaches and lizards and rats and anything that bit. Nurses wore sort-of uniforms, and patients looked comfortable, all tucked onto towels and wrapped in blankets. All had food. All had aqua cola. All had attention.
The fact that made my head spin was the complete and utter lack of War Boys.
Besides Pit, who had earned both odd looks and a handful of backhanded comments, everyone was a wretch or Citadel-born. There was no white paint, no scars, no fighting or scratching or screaming. It was peaceful.
I hated it.
“Don’t get it,” I said, and Pit (who had been trailing behind me like a stomped snake for hours) instantly jumped to attention, stumbling up to stand beside me.
“Don’t get what?” he said, worriedly twining his hands, scared to be brushed off again.
I didn’t answer, but I gave him a reassured pat on the arm. He was free from my jailing silence. I heard him snuffle with appreciation, and to my surprise, he reached for my hand.
I hesitated for a second, but took it, and in that moment realized that he probably wouldn’t even mind if he got kicked off of his crew and had to find new work. He liked time with me. I glanced back at him, and he was smiling, open-mouthed, and staring down at our clasped hands.
Without even giving me a second to question his stupid expression, he eagerly raised my hand to his face and rubbed his scarred cheeks against my knuckles. I tried to pull away, but he was greedily strong and kept my arm in its place.
“Soft,” he marvelled, and I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Those are my baby-catchers! Quit ruinin’ the merchandise with your mediocre rough face!”
“Will not! I saved your life, smeg!”
“And sold my shit!”
“To save your life!”
I laughed, hard, and Pit did too. Mother above, we were wrecked.
Around us, a cacophony of eager cries and excited greetings drowned out our laughter. I guarantee that we wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t seen the Woman on Fire.
I managed to wheeze in a breath when I caught sight of the Wife, and when she caught sight of me, I forced myself to stand up straight after being doubled over.
Shit, shit, shit, fuck, shit—she was right there. Right there. I had practically been in her damned arms a handful of hours ago, and now, here she was, strolling about and greeting her patients with a smile that could stop a sandstorm in its trail. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my entire life.
She wore green, as her other nurses did, but bore an embroidered blanket-like cloak around her shoulders, one that nearly brushed the ground. Industrial work boots popped out from beneath her long, dark skirts as she ghosted along, lovingly leaning over cots to speak to the incapacitated, her stunning hair dangling just inches from their faces. She looked like a moving torch, a torch with sympathetic eyes that kept looking over right at me.
Pit had let go of my hand a while ago. It seemed that when he had noticed the Wife looking at us, he had bowed his head and clasped his hands, leaving his fingers stretched out towards the heavens. I recognized that symbol- I had seen other War Boys do it, before heading out on supply runs. He was praying to his god, it seemed, whatever strange god those men worshipped.
I didn’t have a symbol to make at the Wife, and I didn’t have enough time to put on my paints. When she came over, I just stood there. Stupid Rush, stupid mediocre Rush.
“You look better,” she said, voice melodic and soothing. However, her smile quickly faded at the sight of my blood-soaked shirt. She worriedly grasped my arm, and I think I melted instantly. I didn’t know where I was anymore, and I didn’t care. I wanted her to touch me until I died.
“Are you alright? Did one of my nurses do that?” she asked, and thankfully enough I had half a mind to casually remove her hand from my collar. If it had stayed there too long, I think I would have thrown myself at her and shouted ‘take me’.
“No, I did,” I said, trying to be as cool and calm as possible, but my entire body buzzed as we held hands. I didn’t know what the fuck Valhalla was, but damn it, I was there. “I, uh… I felt better and I wanted t’walk around.”
“Oh, friend, you should have just asked,” she said with a sad smile. “I never did get your name. If you’ll be staying with us, I’d like to know what to yell if you get into any more trouble.”
I laughed weakly. If she screamed my name in any context, I think I’d die happy.
“Rush. M’name’s Rush.”
“Your name’s what?” Pit snorted, and my face burned with shame. Capable was so much more shine than Rush. Shit, shit, fuck, shit—
“Good name. Strong name. You work fast, Rush?”
My knees were getting weak, and I couldn’t tell if it was illness or my grey bits completely scrambling at the sight of seeing her spell my name with her lips.
I nodded feverishly. “Y-Yeah, yeah! Mmm-hmm, fastest, most effective pup-catcher this side of the Wasteland.”
Her eyebrows raised with surprise, and what I hoped to be a little bit of interest. “Pup-catcher? Well, that explains the soft hands! You looking for a job, Miss Rush?”
I grinned, but pulled back the smile a little. My teeth were piss-yellow compared to hers. I wondered what Maude might think of a beauty like her.
The Wife noticed my discomfort and tried smiling again, but that just made me feel worse. I took a step back and ducked my head. Her pretty face was getting a little intimidating, now. I wasn’t used to looking at people like her. I wasn’t used to all of this, the cleanliness and the overall decentness.
I needed rough work. Rougher work than the Woman on Fire could ever give me. Wasteland work.
“I can give you work,” she tried, softer this time. “There are a lot more pregnancies up here than you might think. You’d be very useful to us.”
“It ain’t that,” I muttered, glancing back up at her. “It’s jus’… I made a promise t’ some War Boys that I would help ‘em. The Fury Road survivors. I-I can help with the pregnant ladies, but… I need to help the others too.”
Bullshit, the lot of it. I just didn’t want to get beaten again. I knew my reputation amid the War Boy community was already shot and buried from my fight with the gate-keeper. I needed to step up again, or I wouldn’t last another month, tiny and loud as I was. Helping my enemies might be the only thing keeping me from getting absolutely slaughtered.
I thought of Jericho- the only thing that kept that fucker away from me was giving him half my water. If that worked then, then giving the Jericho’s of the Citadel a sip from my canteen would have to do.
The Wife furrowed her brows, and suddenly, she aged before my eyes. She looked less like a pretty girl and more like a proud woman.
“You aren’t well. I don’t feel comfortable sticking you with them. There’s a reason they aren’t mingling with the other patients. I know these boys, I love these boys, but if you’re not careful, they’ll bite and scratch.”
I furrowed my brows right back at her and puffed up, which ached my ribs, but I didn’t dare falter. “I’ve already gotten my beatings. A few more won’t hurt.”
The Wife shook her head at me and frowned, hard. “When you came here, you were almost dead. It isn’t safe.”
She was only trying to protect me, but somehow, I felt even more insulted than I had been after I had been kicked to near-dying. Without thinking, I pointed down at the stone ground, ignoring the violent sting and fresh trickle of blood blooming just below my shoulder. My eyes were hard, and I despite my bare face, I felt painted to perfection.
“I was almost dead down there, too. Up here, it ain’t more dangerous, it’s just different. Snake bite or bullet, you still get fucked either way. If the only way I can keep myself from getting shit on up here is a few bruises, then damn it, I will turn black and blue if it means keeping my head. My name around here is fucking shit, and I need to fix that. Maybe you don’t understand, but if I don’t get bruised, then I will get buried. Make sense, Wife?”
I had fucked up. I know I had. The Wife set her shoulders and became dark, the look crossing her eyes reminding me of the way Maude would glare at me after she had lost a pup or a mother. I stepped back, and I could hear Pit struggling to think of an excuse for my anger; the Wife shut him up with a raise of her delicate hand.
“…you will stay here and meet with Organic tonight. If you call me Wife one more time, I will see you down the Lift myself. Is that clear?”
A chance. Relief washed over me, but I stayed steely. I decided I very much liked this Wife.
“Okay. Tonight, then.”
Despite her anger, I saw the gleam of enthusiasm twinkle in her pale eyes. She nodded at me.
“Welcome to the Citadel, Miss Rush.”
Chapter 7: Chapter 6
A wild Lizard King appears.
One day, in thousands of days from now, if I ever returned to the Wasteland, perhaps the folks down there would have me become what they called a Moral Banker. While the fire, if we had the chance to have one, popped and sang, wretches from the furthest reaches of the Wasteland would come and hear of my trials. Moral Bankers, unlike History Men, did not carry on particular information so much as they did transfer lessons: from the moment one had a sharp enough memory and a long enough life, they would become informal Moral Bankers. Their nights of stories could last hundreds of days; most died before they could finish recounting the tales of their lives. My folks always said that losing a Moral Banker was like losing a canteen of cool aqua cola- a tragedy in the short term, but a new lesson in itself in the long run. Life went on. We went on.
When I tied my headband about my forehead again, something that felt both old and new, and prepared to meet one of the characters of my childhood nightmares, I found comfort in imagining my prosperous future career as a Moral Banker, and how I would be required to remember everything in order to be a success. I was to witness everything, remember the worst and keep it sharp in my mind’s eye, if I could. Maude taught me had to catch pups in a time where barely any were being born. Why insist on such a useless way to pass my time? Perhaps she knew that something was coming, and wanted me to be ready.
In my few days in the Citadel, I often recounted the many things I had been taught by the many folks I had met here. As I sat on my mat and mixed together a fresh batch of paint, both yellow and red, I thought about all the problems I could have avoided if I had been a little more careful. Under the delicate pads of my soft fingers, fingers blessed by a Wife and a War Boy, I crossed them off in my mind as I coloured in my face.
Yellow paint down the scars under my prominent cheekbones, for the putrid yellow sand of the Wasteland and the burn of the sun in my eyes during my first trip up on the Lift.
Red paint over the discoloration across my Cupid’s bow and up the thin cicatrix on my nose, for the taste and smell of my own blood upon my first Citadel-style beating.
An orange mixture of the two in the middle of my mouth, for the first words I had ever spoken to gentlehearted Pit, who watched me intently decorate myself from my bedside.
A list of coincidences had both saved and ruined my first few days at the Citadel- while they had kept me alive, which was more than I could ever ask for in such a horrid place, they had also ruined any inkling of a reputation I had by sending me illness and starvation. I needed to perform well. I could not allow myself, in this new, terrifying reality of mine, to be jerked around like a manual gearstick, not while the memory of Maude still lingered in my mind. I could not have the image of her scolding me in my own mediocre mind every night.
In this new world, I would become the Big Momma Pup-Catcher. It was the only way to make Pa proud.
Trembling in my cot, I feared that my body might collapse right under me if I stood. However, Pit offered me his arm when I set my bare feet on the floor and rose to my knees. I felt very old, and very naïve. I did not like the contrast.
“You look real chrome,” Pit said, though I could tell by his flat tone that he didn’t really mean it. I was too anxious to call him out on it, though. He was only trying to be helpful.
“You keep saying that word,” I said absently, righting my skirts and tucking in my ratty, bloodied blouse. I would have had a spare, in my knapsack, but after all my provisions had gone to the Organic, I didn’t have many options. “Don’t understand it.”
“Chrome?” he asked, and when I nodded, he puffed out a little breath. No one had probably ever asked him the meaning behind that shiny word of his. As we walked, he furrowed his brows in a concentration I hadn’t really seen from him.
“Chrome… Chrome means shiniest of shine. Best of the best. Kami-crazy out-of-this-world wild and amazing,” he said, and I laughed, but it came out shallow. I saw on his face that he knew my giggle was a lie, too. I liked our mutual understanding of one-another. We could push each-other’s buttons about fibbing some other time.
Like a true War Boy bodyguard, he walked me to the end of the hall, where the Wife had told me to wait for the Organic. I didn’t want to leave Pit; I wasn’t used to doing such things alone.
Around us, nearly the entire ward was asleep, and the only thing that had allowed me to mix my paints and talk with Pit were a handful of scattered oil lamps. In truth, they fascinated me- they would be so useful for catching pups in the dark, instead of having to light a fire outside the mother’s tent and leave the flaps open to see enough. Yes, if I ever went back, I would bring along some shiny oil lamps. Maude would sure find them chrome.
“…you’re a good Boy, Pit,” I said, interrupting the silence and speaking in a low tone, as if I were telling him a secret.
I reached out and took his hand. I was wearing my glove again, to avoid my hands getting soiled, but I was glad to feel the squeeze of his hand in mine, not too hard. He was such a good learner. If he weren’t so soft, he might get some black paint on his forehead, like I had seen some other, tougher Boys have. I wondered what his ambitions were. I wondered if War Boys had any at all.
I glanced up at him, and though he stared straight ahead, I could see the gleam of tears in his eyes. It reminded me of Pa, on that faithful night, and his love of that trinket and of his brand-new title.
Without speaking, I released his hand, and deftly reached into the pocket on my leg, filled with my powders; I pulled off the glove of my free hand with my teeth, and worked quickly, sticking my thumb in my mouth and giving it a good suck. Pit had noticed me, at this point, and though his expression got that confused quality I often saw him wearing, he stayed silent.
I stuck my wet thumb into the red powder and, without thinking, reached out and began tracing a circle on Pit’s left pectoral with the chunky paint. It was a little lopsided, and the three-armed star seemed a lick too small, but the image was clear. Even Pit seemed to recognize it, somehow, and I heard him snort back some snot and clumsily wipe his face. Always crying, that pup.
“You wear that and you think of me, yeah, Mercedes Man? Makes you look chrome.”
Pit stared into me for what seemed like hours. I could tell he wanted to do something, but I’m afraid War Boys weren’t very good with self-expression. So, when he heard the slam of a door just beyond the fork in the hall just before us, he scrubbed his face one more time and hurried off, tugging up his loose pants as he went along and disappearing into the dark.
“That your fuck-buddy? Bit young for’ya, don’t’cha think?”
At my side, where Pit had stood just moments before, the Organic Mechanic in all his rusted glory leaned in the doorway and watched me move in the dim light. My eyes, adapted to working in the dark, also ran along him. He looked rather healthy, for a man in what looked to be deep in his 15000 days. He lacked patches of hair on his head, though by odd location of the tufts of remaining hair, I could tell that it probably wasn’t disease, as the beard on his face was still dark and lush. He work dark, brown clothing over his thicker set body, and he had even scrounged together a fine apron and makeshift bullet belt in which to stuff various tools, like scissors and what looked to be needles. He was hardly a thing of terror, but neither were snakes, at first glance, slithering on their bellies. I just had to wait and find out where he hid his venom.
When I dared step closer to him, the Organic reached over and pinched the meager fat of my arms, before moving to grab my face, forcing my mouth open to look at my molars. I instinctively tensed, and though I didn’t pull away, he chuckled at the sight of the whites of my eyes.
“A bit tiny for a job like this one, eh? A wretch pup-catcher workin’ with War Boys. Sisters must be gettin’ desperate for new help,” he said, leaning into my face to look at my scars. When he threatened to wipe at my paint with his hairy fingers, I yanked my face away and scowled.
“They ain’t desperate,” I spat, touching the place on my jaw where his fingers had locked hard around my face. “Couldn’t say the same ‘bout you though, Organic. Stealin’ folks’ things for room and board. Thought y’were supposed to be some war hero, not some fattened-up scavenger. You ain’t what I was expectin’.”
Organic’s face wilted and withered before my eyes. He seemed to have expected my defiance, but did not know I would be so quick to snap and make a mark on what I assumed to be quite the fragile ego.
“That life in y’won’t last long,” he rasped, wagging a knowing finger at me before turning to lead me down the left fork in the hall. His words, despite them being nothing more than a chiding warning, left me absolutely shaken. I had been through too much already to assume what he was saying was true. If I let every little grain of sand rub me the wrong way, I would have been skinned alive long ago.
The walk, surprisingly, was not long. The hallway, which led to a single, ominous wooden door, was lit with nothing but a handful of half-used torches on spires, pinned into the rock walls. There were no oil lamps to be found here. The feeling I got about the place was already a bad one. When we reached the door, Organic did not even turn to warn me- if I ever become a Moral Banker, this would be where I started my story.
The stench of shit and piss rose in the air like thick clouds, with such a fierce burn that I struggled to keep my eyes open. I quickly struggled to pull my shirt, stiff with dried blood, above my nose, which did barely anything to mask the smell. I comforted myself in the fact that I had known worse. Birth smelt this way, sometimes, if the mother shat herself in the tent. I had known such things.
I stepped in after Organic and shut the door. The other patients down the hall did not deserve to smell as much as I had, lest they wanted to get sicker. To my disdain, after the smell had been forced from my mind by my own sheer willpower, a new assault of the senses gave my mind whiplash.
Stacked beside one-another like strips of dried jerky, men in cracked white paint wailed and squirmed for their half-lives. Most could not lift their heads above the level of their chests. Those who could, along with the handful of them that were sitting up, stared at me with gazes of lightning and flame. I followed Organic to the other end of the room, which may have been large once, but seemed miniature when it was so stuffed with people. The scent and the sound made we want to heave.
As I shuffled past the awoken crowd, men grabbed at my skirts and ankles, some accusing and others begging for help. I recoiled from the burning scratches of their fingernails- one stronger man even tried to bite me, but Organic kicked him onto his back with the sole of his boot and hurried me along.
The lot of them were in unspeakable condition. I had never waded through so much blood and sick and hair in my life, not even during the most violent of births. Laying on the bare stone floor, some men were wrapped in cloth bandages from near head-to-toe, while others attempted to hobble about in the small space on nothing more than the palms of their bare hands, the stumps of what used to be legs dragging limply behind them. I could see, over the see of whites and reds and browns, the figure of a man sobbing over a limp body, which looked as if it were missing half of the skin of its face; maggots crawled from the body’s cheek. I tasted vomit, but swallowed hard. No use sickening this place up more than it already was.
“Sister? You here to help, Sister?”
A voice of authority rang out over the bellowing of his cabinmates, and though I knew Organic was probably leading me about to show me where I would be sleeping for the night, I couldn’t ignore the voice. I turned my head back towards the desert of skulls, and saw one man’s hand shoot up desperately in the moving mass grave.
I waded back through the puddles of human waste and found the man, who was kneeling on the ground and looking over a shivering body. As I kneeled at his side, I could feel dozens feverishly crawling towards me, surrounding me, at my back and ribs. Their sour breaths made my head spin, but I turned my attention to the man that had called me family.
He was older, this stranger, older than even Organic, and sported more scars on his body than I had ever seen, so many that I couldn’t distinguish wrinkle from cut. His chest and head were wrapped, but he could still see through one aging eye. He looked calm, despite the chaos. He reminded me of Pa.
He reached out his hand to me, and I took it in my gloved one. He was reassuring me, in his own way, with a finger-crushing squeeze that took my breath away.
“You come to make sure we’re still croakin’, Sister?” he asked, and the men around me leaned in hard. I looked at their faces- they were all in desperate need of shaves, and fresh coats of paint, food, and some decent aqua cola.
Some of them were not trusting. I could tell they only stayed close to see if I would punch it and veer off, gas pedal floored. Others, the ones in worse condition, had no choice but to look at me and hope. I could feel dozens of hands clinging to my clothes and touching my skin. Without so much paint, they looked just like the Wretched, like the wanderers of the long Wasteland summers. I suppose, in a way, they were.
I took my hand away from the man’s and peeled away my gloves. They needed the softness more than I did.
I waddled over to the shivering man on the floor. Though his eyes were open, I could tell he saw nothing through them. He was heavily scarred, like all the others, sporting staples in his cheeks where the cuts didn’t completely heal and decorative markings along his lower belly and hips, as well as the traditional War Boy decorations on his arms. His face, despite the marks, seemed in decent condition; the tumour lingering above his right brow, one just like my Mary had, was keeping his right eye lazy and red, but he might still be able to use it, if he lived long enough to get better.
The biggest concern was his arm and leg.
The entire left half of his body below the elbow was utterly fucked. His arm was shredded, and by the looks of it, he had lost a foot, too. I didn’t even dare pick away at the scraps of his trousers, which had fused to the open wound on his thigh and calf completely. There was puss everywhere; he smelled like rotting flesh in the midday sun. I found I didn’t much care.
In my stupidity, I reached out and gathered him in my arms. I didn’t care what sickness he probably had; I knew I wouldn’t be ill, at least not as ill as he. Like Maude would say: some things, you just damn know.
He squirmed irritably and made angry grunting noises despite his lack of full consciousness. I knew I couldn’t be hurting him- his bad arm and leg weren’t being disrupted at all. The bastard seemingly just didn’t want to be touched! It surprised me that he could even move at all, especially around his hips, but soon, he was bucking with all his might, and I knew that if I dropped him, I would be broken by his loyal cabinmates, who watched me like crows watched wrecks for bodies.
I had to think fast. I had too much on the line, and I was not going to let some bitter, half-limbless smeg get me kicked out of the place the Wife had insisted I was too weak for.
Fuck gentility. This Boy needed more convincing than soft hands.
I grit my teeth and gave a growl of my own as I swung my leg up and over his bandaged torso. Maude would not be happy. I could hear her in my mind, scolding me. The patient’s always right- if ‘e wants t’buck, then back off and let’im buck, girly! I couldn’t listen right now. Not when I had an audience of potential death-machines.
Wham. The fucker’s shoulders slammed against the pissy floor as I put as much weight as I could on him without having him scream. He needed to calm down—no, I needed to show that I could calm him down.
”Stronger than I thought!” the older man chuckled, and my heart dropped in my chest. This was all just another test. Another nurse they were trying to get off their turf.
The man below me must have been one hell of a fighter in his hay-day. It looked like he still was.
His sleepy eyes focused on my face, if only for a fraction of a moment. We locked gazes, both of us unrelenting- a hush fell over the relatively raucous crowd. Someone had to give, and I would not let it be me.
A sudden sharp pain in the flesh of my own exposed lower back made me yelp; the War Boys around me guffawed at the sight. The little smeg-faced ass under me was digging his damned broken nails into me! I refused to move, especially when he smiled drunkedly at me and bared his teeth. Assshole.
“Fighter, ain’t ‘ya?!” I groaned, feeling fresh beads of blood beginning to trickle down my back and soak the waist of my skirts. The older man behind me scooted closer to get a better look at the smeg wrestling with me so hard.
“Fightin’?” the older man said, reaching to tug hard on a strand of my loosening hair. “Girly, this is barely an afternoon drive for this bastard.”
“Fuckers, the lot o’you,” I spat at the injured man, who, if anything, dug his nails even harder into my back and arched his spine at me. His crewmembers around him positively died of laughter at my anguished scream, and for a moment, the entire War Boy Blood Shed beamed.
It seemed they were going to like me here.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
The Nasty Lizard King loses his breath and Rush talks about balls.
I woke from sleep on my second morning of Wasteland work to a shocking lack of death.
The air of the early morning was crisp, and though I was relieved to find the toxic scent of human excrement was stifled due to the desert chill, the osnaburg mat at my back that the Organic had left me to use as a temporary mattress had irritated my calves and arms. The cradle of sand and stolen cotton were nowhere to be found, and to my great disappointment, I had no opportunity to watch the sun rise. The room in which I would spending the next hundreds of days had no view of the outside. I mourned the loss of the sun on my tan skin, and wondered if I would look as pale as Organic by the time my trials here had been overcome.
The harsh clanging of a bare palm against a metal pot made my skin jump; my elbows slid in the puddle of piss I had left behind at my bedside earlier that night. I would have surely cursed, but the piercing of Organic’s shrill voice through the thick blanket of the growing heat distracted my senses.
Into the morning, I limped, my bare feet smacking against the raw floors, the first one up besides my boss, who had a look in his eye like he had been screwed with an exhaust pipe. Around us, the men who could move began hollering and hooting, scrambling with their trousers and hurrying to wake their mates. In the faint light, I could only see their heads. Scraggly crops of brown, blonde, and black hair poked up from their white-painted roots, unkempt and utterly neglected to the point of unnatural stiffness. Only the old man with the scars and folds was bald, and I could tell from the shiny smoothness of his head that it was completely natural.
Men, who had yesterday been too weak to rise from their cots and look me in the eye, wearily rolled onto their sides towards Organic. Those who could move made a shoving, spitting half-circle around the pair of us. The oldest man was at the front of the group, a handful of steps in front of Organic. No one fought or clawed at him. No one dared even look.
He acknowledged me with a bow of his head, but did not do the same to Organic, who was distractedly counting the writhing bodies beneath his breath, tapping at the air as the numbers grew. I furrowed my brows at the old man, who opened his mouth and pointed feverishly at his tongue. Ration time.
A wash of fear silenced by grumbling stomach as I watched the Organic lift the lid of the metal pot tucked under his elbow- the scent of cooked meat got the entire room rattling, but no one moved except me. I scrambled backwards, out of the ring of Boys. I knew better than to be caught in the middle of a vulture-fight over carcasses. I’d wait for my turn to gnaw on the bones. My back pressed against the far back wall, and like a mirage, I watched the grand majority of the shamed War Boys freeze as their esteemed old man approached and gazed into the pot. He took his time, like Pa did when sorting through his sellable scraps, and fished out a prize of three juicy, headless snakes.
“Y’hungry, girly?” he shouted to me, and the dark, oily eyes of his crew all landed my painted face. I swallowed hard.
I had shown my lack of patience with the half-limbless Boy, along with my willingness to get fighty. Like a Mill Rat, I had to push forward if I wanted any progress. I raised my chin at the elderly man.
“Sure, I am,” I said, and even Organic reared his ugly head to flare his nostrils at me. The group rattled and hissed, smothered lizards in a canvas bag, and though my pulse would have otherwise been too rapid to record, the old man’s calmness reassured the slowing beat in my chest.
“Kill your engines, then, all’o ya!” he bellowed, though I could tell he was not upset. He didn’t need to work himself into a fit in order to get his crew to behave. With a crack of vocal thunder, the room fell silent and still, save Organic’s phlegmy chuckle, and the ashen War Boys bitterly bit their bleeding mouths and scuffed their bare feet. The change of mood, quick as a blue sky after a storm, made me shiver. The old thing had some guzzoline in him, after all.
He strode towards me and, snake between his lips, held out the skinniest reptile and shook it a little, as if to cool it for me.
“…didn’t need t’do tha’,” I said, deep below my breath, hesitantly taking the steaming meat. “Real shine o’you.”
He shrugged my compliment off with a wave of his calloused hand. “Naw. Jus’ don’t wan’ya dead, is all.”
With the old man’s prized retrieved, and our shared return to his bunk, the Boys (with a nonverbal cue that I had no idea how they had received and understood) savagely consumed the Organic in a cloud of cracked paint and flying hands, their deep voices aggressively ricocheting from wall to wall upon impact. While Organic was sturdy enough in build to withstand the accidentally-purposeful punches and the absentminded tossing off his weight through the crowd, I could see what the old man meant. If I had been there, fighting for my rations, I would have become rations. I could imagine my ribs snapping under the weight of a War Boy’s holed boot and them fighting over who got roasting claim over my soft hands first.
The offer of food had not been a friendly gesture, but protection. I’m sure the old man didn’t want another decomposing body stinking this place up.
As we ate, cross-legged and hunched, I watched the old man. His body condition, despite it having withered with age, was still surprisingly strong- big biceps and shoulders, someone who was forced to haul more than his body weight around on a constant basis. Pa had those arms, as a scavenger, but he seemed too dignified for that sort of dirty work. The multiple tumours littering his neck, and his sagging lower lip, which dragged along as he chewed, were impressive in the worst of ways. I couldn’t fathom how he had survived this long.
The old man caught my lingering eyes and chuckled a little, baring his teeth in a stiff smile.
“Haven’t had a girl look’a me like you are ‘na long time,” he said, happier than a nursed pup, scouring the growing stubble on his chin with his knuckles. He looked uncomfortable.
“Old, but not rusted, you are,” I said between bites of snake. Tasteless and pale, like I would soon be, like this old man already was. “Shit spot t’end up in, mate. Sorry.”
He snorted at me, and with his free arm, gave me a hard shove in the shoulder. I grimaced at the ripple of pain shooting up my neck, but the unimpressed side-eye he shot at me wiped the complaintive expression from my face.
“Ain’t gonna die, girly,” he scoffed, sticking his oily fingers between his lips and sucking away the meager juices the snake had left behind. “Not’n this busted place.”
“Hope y’won’t,” I grumbled, the fading scent of meat beginning to give way to the all-too-natural stench of the room. “I wouldn’t wan’ya t’die up Joe’s sweaty ass-crack.”
The old man might have made a face at me, but due to his extensive facial bandages, all he could do was shake his head and wipe his forehead with the back of his forearm, slow and methodical. My stomach dropped, and though I feared a flying smack across the cheek, I remained as aloof as possible. I had lived long enough to know my abusers before I even learned their names. No, he did not yet make me fear.
When I was a very young pup, and was still tiny enough to be coddled when I fussed, Pa used tell me that the problems of all the folks in the Wasteland were be carried on the hot desert wind like miniscule grains of sand. If exposed to enough storms, my ears and eyes would be filled with the irritation that accompanied the breeze; no matter how safe I thought I was, in the caress of the wind, I was to always recover and find shelter, lest I wished to be choked. Only from the fleeting moments of shelter in the storm, he said, could I see how long it would take to pass.
I shuffled closer to the old man and peered into his distracted eyes; they were a brilliant green, behind the thin bandages.
“…I don’t want t’die ‘ere, either,” I said, and though I could tell his thoughts were still sharp with the hatred of my words, he intently turned to me. “What d’I do, if I don’t want t’die?”
The old man regarded me. His eyes were liked broken glass, worn out and not to be trusted around their sharp edges. They reminded me of my place here, like a rat under the gleam of a blade. Despite the sweltering heat and humidity of the place, his attention made my fingers beneath my gloves cool. I shivered further as his eyes drew across my childlike frame- the only thing I had to show for my womanhood were my breasts, swollen but milkless. I did not need to see his gearstick to know of his manliness.
Here, in the Blood Shed of Blood Sheds, my body quivered and collapsed as it had never done during my thousands of days in the Wasteland. Even in illness could these men break me into a form they preferred to lay their eyes on- my words meant nothing here.
My lips, my throat, my tongue, they had been my weapons in a world where I was surrounded by beggars. When those around me spoke, I was taught to holler. This new world was too loud to be hollered over, full of sandstorms but lacking shelter. How long would it take me to drown?
The old man shifted to his knees and rose up. Pit might have offered me his hand, but he turned away with a flap of his clever fingers, motioning for me to follow. I had certainly thought Organic would have found something for me to do, by now, but I figured these first few days would be nothing but frustrated hours of tears and bruises. He was wise to a degree, that Organic, to leave me in my own misery. I would need to learn to bandage myself before I bandaged the strong.
I got to my feet and followed the old man. As I walked, I noticed the younger men, all in conditions deplorable enough to make me willing to waste a few bullets and put them out of their misery, bared their teeth at me and hummed when I curled in upon myself. As they chewed on their morning meal, smacking their lips and baring their pink gums, I figured what they thinking: Linger too long, and we’ll get you too.
Even in my advancing years, I recall the days of my Pa’s reign as Mercedes Man- people went through the grueling effort of moving their tents under the scowl of the sun, in a desperate effort to be closer to him. It seemed that simple folks thought that if they close enough to power, it would rub off on them and cling like the shadow of dried mud. Here, people stayed out of the old man’s way. There were no greetings or pats on the back. The life-lusty War Boys had lost their collective motor’s spark. I knew that because, otherwise, I would have been dead.
I was herded back, by the old man’s volition, to the bedside of a man I had already met, and that deathlike chill returned to dance up my aching spine. Despite being bedridden, the smeg was still strangely mobile and quite strong. The sight of him made me huff, and the old man noticed and huffed with me, too.
“In my time,” he said, taking a careful seat beside his fellow Boy’s sleeping body, “there were two ways y’could deal with rust like him.” The old man patted the space beside him, but I didn’t obey. I didn’t want to get within five feet of that rot-smelling, grinning, scratching little bastard. The raw, torn skin of my back had suffered the consequences of my boldness.
When I didn’t join him, the old man turned towards his fellow Boy, the one Organic didn’t even seem to drift by. The bandages keeping his arm from falling apart were yellow with age and pusslike secretions- the same went for his leg, though that also bore blood in the sickening mixture. He had torn out his stitches, that squirmy maggot. Unlike yesterday, his shivering and convulsions had reached the point of putting him in a near-comatose state. His entire body was glistening with a thin sheen of sweat, and upon closer inspection, I saw his eyes rolling helplessly beneath his veiny lids. He nearly made me feel bad for him. Nearly.
“And what were those?” I asked mildly, hovering by the fallen Boy’s feet. He needed a bandage change. My hands itched to help. It was like watching a pup suffocating around its own cord and daring to watch its face turn purple. Then again, he was no pup. This man was pure goanna, and though I wasn’t afraid to sit on him again, I did not want another marring.
The old man glanced at me, leaned over, and did the unthinkable- he grabbed the sleeping man’s nose and pitched his nostrils tightly shut between his thumb and index finger. Instantly, I saw the sleeping man’s chest strain to let out his breath, and in my sympathy, the wind got knocked right out of me.
My heart leaped, and so did I; I jumped across the stranger’s good leg and recklessly tore the old man’s fingers away from his nose. Thankfully, the Boy did nothing but groan loudly in response to the disruption of his sleep.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?!” I roared, listening to the Boy’s wheezing breaths and paying careful attention to the fretful tossing of his head. “Y’want me t’lose my job, huh? Shit, man, fuck!”
The old man raised his hands defensively. “Alrigh’, alrigh’, so we don’t wan’im dead! Jus’ wanted t’make sure if we were ridin’ the same road, is all.”
“If ‘e dies, I’ll be the one draggin’ his ass out o’this place!” I snarled.
When the old man reached out to touch the Boy again, I jumped and grabbed his wrist. I had seen the sandstorm; now, I had a feeling I knew where it was headed. If he had wanted to, the old man could have easily ripped his arm out of my hand and shoved me away, as he had done when he had both sat at his cot, but his intention wasn’t violence. He slowly pulled back and allowed me my space.
I hadn’t even realized my exposed tailbone was now pressing back into the War Boys ribs. He was cold. I would need to fix that, soon.
“In my time, there were two ways y’could deal with rust like him,” he began again, leaning forward on his knees so that we were only inches apart. His breath smelled horrid, but I accepted the closeness and leaned in too.
“Either y’get him outta your way,” he said, holding up his dangerous fingers, thumb and index, in the shape of a pistol, “or, you get him in your crew.”
“I’m a crew of one,” I said miserably, jutting my hand out at the dying War Boy in exasperation. “’E ain’t wakin’ up for shit. Even if ‘e did, he’s gotta crew. I ain’t got no one up ‘ere.”
I thought of my Pit, and my Mary. I wanted to cry, but the old man was too busy mocking me for that. He tapped himself firmly in the chest and smiled.
“Told ya, I still ain’t dead yet!” he crowed, and the sight of the bold old man made me laugh a little. He was good for that, at least. He reached out and, with surprising gentility, tucked a loose strand of my dark hair up and under the edge of my head wrap.
“What d’I call ya, girly?” he asked, in a voice I had often heard Maude use around newborn pups. He had probably seen many War Boys that young, in his lifetime. I flapped my hands at him and pulled the loose strand back out, and he laughed, too. It was good to see him burning that guzzoline.
“Rush,” I said.
“Rush? Good name. War Boy name.”
“Yeah? You got a good War Boy name?”
“Sure, I do.” His tone mirrored my own. Teasing again. “They call me Ace. Old as Balls Ace.”
I wrinkled my nose playfully at him. “’M sure your balls ain’t so old, Ace.” I remember Pit talking about him, all excited-like, when he had first gotten hold of Mary. It seemed Old as Balls Ace was really a thing of legend.
Ace’s face lit up, and he eagerly reached down and grabbed at the crotch of his pants with new fervor. “You sure, girly? ‘Could have you count the wrinkles!”
I covered my eyes with my hand and gagged. Ace was disgusting. All these War Boys were disgusting.
Maude would love ‘em.
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
Rush has her first War-Boy style toussle.
When I first began my apprenticeship under Maude and began to accompany her to various tents and settlements in order to witness proper pup deliveries, one of the first jobs I was meant to complete was that of feeding the mother during the birth, if only in order to keep her energy levels high enough to get the pup’s head out from her womanly canyon. While the woman rode out her contractions and gradually weakened, as they always did, I was sat at her side with a bowl of molasses in my lap, sweeping my sweetened fingers across her gums. Of course, there were those who clenched their jaws, but I quickly noticed those who resisted were near-always those who were rotting by the next mid-morning.
The Blood Shed’s temporary inhabitants seemed to defy this natural rule and prove what I had thought was truth wrong in the span of one complete moon cycle.
Despite their collective worsening conditions, the men, who’s total population I failed to count but established at around fifty, seemingly refused everything I could offer them, save their daily rations and aqua cola supply. While I was no as deft of hand with bandages and wrapping as the Organic, who could wrap a squirming War Boy up in the time it took for him to empty his bladder, I was sure I had a gentler hand. Though I attempted to be slow with them, it seemed that these men had no concept of propriety or quality- they would probably rather take a beaten-up cycle on half a tank of guzzoline into the desert over waiting a few days to get help, if only to feel the wind on their faces and the ground rumbling beneath the seats of their pants. When I helped, they spat. They smacked. They punched. I was dealing with a nest of albino rattlesnakes in the middle of their shed, and even though I offered them fresh mice, I was still hissed at on a daily basis.
My weariness, constant and unrelenting in intensity, took a toll on my patience. I had taken their punches for days before I began punching back. When they bruised my ribs, I bruised my knuckles. I pulled tight on wrappings when they yanked at my hair. I stuck my bare fingers into bullet wounds when they attempted to pluck my eyes out. Organic found my anger nothing less than a complete amusement, and that was the thing that gnawed at me the most.
He didn’t pull his weight like I did. His acceptance of a new nurse gave him an excuse to disappear for hours, returning with the smell of sex on his skin and his trousers low on his hips. I would let him have his pleasures, if he at least let me have mine, but he refused to let me out of the sickening place. The more suns I spent indoors, the less I cared about myself. I let my clothing get holed up and tattered, even more so than it already was, when the Boys decided they wanted to get up and under my skirts. I neglected the state of my lengthening hair, which was getting long and difficult to manage, even with the help of my hair wrap. My paints were all that remained; even then, they served as more of a bitter memory of Maude than as my cherished war paints. How could she send me to this place? How could she think anything up here could be better than it was with her?
The only one who seemed to find positive change in what I was experiencing and encouraged my rage was Ace. Unlike that first day, he no longer got me snakes and complimented my relative prettiness- I was forced to fight with the rest of the group for food, now, and had lost another tooth from a sharp elbow to my jaw. I got excessively thin, which Ace commented on (“Ain’t never gonna find’ya a man with those ribs, girly!”), but never tried to fix. As far as he was concerned, my struggles were normal for a 'pup'. He could not coddle me. I had to find my own place in this world. I had been born at the bottom of the clutch of eggs, and I had to slither my way out from under those had had the privilege to have me laid on top.
My jaw ached something terrible as I kneeled over a basin of lukewarm aqua cola, violently scrubbing at bandages that would need to be hung up to dry. Despite everything, I still wore my gloves. Someone would have to give birth eventually. Someone would have to come get me. My hands would need to be soft.
If there was one positive thing that came out of my constant beatings and injuries, it was the silence. The War Boys no longer felt the need to holler at me as I walked past them- perhaps it was because they would get their fill of violence at every meal, hitting me until I bled, or my own increasingly aggressive behavior, but they kept quiet while I worked away from then, nowadays.
My routine became sublime in its thoughtless, repetitive nature. Breakfast; first bandage changes; bandage washings; lunch; a collective nap; second bandage changes; dinner; sleep. Any interruption was a hassle and jostled me up. I ached so much, and my body only had enough energy for what I was required to do, the slave-work I had brought upon myself in an attempt to find glory. What glory was there to be found in piss and shit and blood and tears?
I thought about the Wife often enough. I wondered if she would recognize me, now that I was nothing more than a stained, tough corpse. I missed the scent of her, her kind but stern words. She had warned me of my faith. She was looking out for my wellbeing, but I refused to listen to what she had to say. After getting beaten, my pride couldn’t take much more abuse. I had to prove I was alright, to someone in this enormous place. Chrome, as Pit would say. I didn’t hear that word around the Blood Shed much at all.
Next to the basin, Organic used the mud-coloured aqua cola to wash his remaining tufts of hair. It was not drinkable in the slightest, and he wouldn’t dare use it on his body, which was cut up more often than not, but cleaning out his fluffy hair seemed appropriate. His grooming and narcissism left a bad taste in my mouth.
“Quit hoggin’ the cola, Organic,” I growled, snapping the tail-end of the length of wet bandages wrapped around my knuckles against his open palms.
“It’s boss t’you, wretch,” he replied with just as much animosity. “Y’wanna get your lights knocked out?”
“Fuck you. Ain’t no one here willin’ t’do that for you, and you ain’t got the balls,” I seethed. I didn’t have time for Organic’s shit today, or at any other point in the near future.
He stuck a thick finger in my face, and my instinct to lash out and bite him was getting stronger the longer it lingered there, inches from my mouth.
“Naw, fuck you! I could kick y’outta here and back t’the shithole y’came from right now!”
My exasperation was released in the form in a broken laugh. The feverish Boys weren’t the only ones who were delusional.
“You? Kick me out? Who’s gonna take over once one of your Citadel whores gives ya a bug strong enough t’send turn your gearstick inside-out? Shut your mouth and your legs, Organic. Nothin’ important’s comin’ out of either.”
I saw his face burn under his beard, and his usually steady fists quivered, but he did not move. That smeg knew better- after giving a good whacking about the head for some sloppy stitches a fistful of days ago, Ace had given him an earful on my behalf. Ace might have been a little rough around the edges, but he at least had the liberty of a free mind and mouth. He could say what he pleased, and no one questioned his decisions much further than a few stray grumbles. Not even Organic.
“Fine,” he said as he rose to his knees, glaring at me under his heavy brows. “Y’wanna be fighty? Go fight with Two-Limb.”
Two-Limb. The only one conscious enough in his unconsciousness to still deliver blows and scream enough to silence the entire ward. The only one who could pull out his stiches with the sheer power in his muscles. The only one worse here than Organic.
“Eat cock, Organic!” I roared, tossing the bandages into the murky water and earning a howl from the other men as his retreating figure stalked out of the room. My chest swelled with pride, but also oncoming exhaustion. The bandages could wait. Two-Limb’s hunger could not.
I slopped a few spoonfuls of mashed and watered potato into a waiting cup; while I was sure that the sleepier of the patients might have preferred the taste of lizard, it was the only thing I could force down their throats without having to convince them to chew their meals. Two-Limb, in my mind, didn’t need the softness of boiled potato. He had given me enough bites to prove that the only thing wrong with his jaw was skin deep.
Two-Limb’s mates called him Slit. It was almost funny, too ironic for the War Boys’ simple minds to understand. Then again, the name could have been a joke in itself. Two-Limb reacted to everything, even to Ace, with a flying fist and a growl. He didn’t trust anyone, not even Ace. Those who hadn’t gotten their grey bits too rattled up after the Road War had long abandoned the hope of having Two-Limb react in any other way than pissy. I had, too.
I kneeled at Two-Limb’s side, and regretted to see that Ace was at the other side of tiny room, distractedly chatting with some of his mates. Folks were never around when I needed them.
“I got your feed,” I called to him, though, as always, the smeg turned his face away and made a noise of utter defiance. My aching knees willed me to take a seat by his head. I didn’t doubt that he could fling his arm backwards and strike me, but at least the relative distance from his good hand would give me some time to move when he did.
“Hey! War fodder! Quit your squirmin’!” When he still didn’t move, I grabbed him by the forehead with my free hand. Mother, even his neck was bulging with strength, the rusty fucker!
Two-Limb tested the strength of my grip with a violent jerk, but I was unrelenting.
“Why is it always a fight with you?!” I shouted. I expected a warlike wail in response, but I got something much quieter and just as terrifying instead.
He opened his eyes. Wide. Stared right at me and dared me to stay where I was.
So, Two-Limb, like magic, cocked his chin, lost the grip of my fingers, and sunk his teeth into my hand.
For the briefest of moments, I had believed the thickness of my gloves might have protected me from the razors that were his incisors, but after having been soaked long enough in aqua-cola, the fabric was thinning out to point of barely acting as a barrier for anything. The breaking of the skin forced a scream from my mouth, and as he clamped his jaw, my consciousness blinked and my throat took over, as it had always done.
“Mediocre, rusted fuckhead!”
The heel of my hand flew towards his nose, but I he saw me coming. Instead of releasing my hand, he threw his shoulder sideways, dragging me across his chest with a surprisingly amount of force. Blood was pouring from my glove and down my arm, dripping off at my elbow and dripping downwards, onto Two-Limb’s chest. If he didn’t let go soon, he would hit bone, and I didn’t want to find out what would happened when he got there.
I remembered Ace’s rule- thumb and index.
I squeezed my eyes shut and, with as much force as I could possibly muster, jammed my fingers through his healing cheek and pulled.
The staples in his skin popped rhythmically as I tore through the thin layer of flesh, and before long, his blood was mixing with mine. We were smothered in it. It was the most colour I had seen in months. I kept pulling, but the thick, scarred tissue nearest to his mouth kept me from moving forward. He was spitting blood and hollering with enough force to shake the entire room. My wounded hand was pressing down hard against his throat, and his strong one was wrapped around my wrist, cutting the circulation with his impressive grip.
“I’m no one’s bitch, you cunt!” Two-Limb bellowed beneath my choking hand. Despite the pain I knew it was causing him, Two-Limb cocked his good leg up and was pressing his knee into my stomach, trying to get me to wriggle off. I would not obey. I had spent too long cleaning up blood. I wanted to see some.
I threw as much weight as I could backwards, as he had done, and I felt the skin of his face pull with me as I threw myself about, half-yanking his entire face off. Didn’t need to be strong, to do damage. Didn’t need to be a Boy to wrestle. Didn’t need Maude, or Pa. I could do it alone.
Before I could tear through the final inch of skin connecting his lip to his cheek, someone roughly grabbed me by the back of my shirt and lifted me off of Two-Limb. In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten that the pair of us weren’t alone.
“Leave ‘im with some face, girly! Joe-almighty, I thought y’didn’t wan’im dead! Sit and cool off, y’fuckin’ animal,” Ace barked, dropping me a few feet away from Two-Limb and forcing me into a corner with his boot. I was not wanted any longer. I had hurt one of their own. I was done for.
Trembling with pain and adrenaline, I couldn’t find it in me to cry. No aqua cola again. I couldn’t cry, not when I had to mop all this shit up. War Boys didn’t have to worry about those sort of things. Those at the top could fight and bleed without consequences. In my corner, watched and feared, I remembered the Wife.
“…think’m tough enough for it, after all, don’t you worry” I said to no one, gathering my knees into my chest.
I would sleep well tonight.
Chapter 10: Chapter 9
Rush gets some body-mods and threatens to actually do her job.
Two-Limb, I discovered, was a lot nastier when he began speaking.
My feelings about Two-Limb were the same feelings I had regarding sand mites- he was everywhere where he shouldn’t be, and even when you thought you hand found shelter from him, you found his bite-marks littered across your body by the time night fell. If he had met me at another time in my life, perhaps out there in the Wasteland where I could manage some respect because of Maude’s good name, I might have been able to keep him from buzzing in my ears and swarming about me whenever I grew too close to his turf.
By the time I had gotten my palm temporarily stitched up by Organic and the infection he had left in the wake of his attack had seeped from my hand, Two-Limb was sitting up despondently against the back wall of his cot and spitting at me every time I strayed too carelessly by his bedside. He refused to accept anything directly from me: if he wanted his share of rations, one of his mates, few as there were, would have to get a second portion and toss it to him. Two-Limb might have once ground his teeth and smacked his lips as he ate, goanna that he was, but the wound I had inflicted on his face (which he refused to have stitched back up) made him take careful, precise little nibbles. It was funny, to watch him be so dainty. Even I, with my small stomach, could finish quicker than he.
Organic decided I could no longer be trusted to work with the patients, which didn’t much bother me. I still had work mopping up after the Boys, which was a completely different challenge in itself, considering that they had about as much hygiene as bald-headed vultures, littering their scraps and shit this way and that in such a way as to force me to clean every inch of the place on a daily basis. It didn’t help that none of them would leave.
I could understand why Ace wanted to stay, to a degree, especially after I had wandered about. Having their Boys, who were badly enough perceived by the common folk as it was, tearing the new Blood Shed worker limb from limb would be too much for their reputation to handle. They could be turned into the sand and told to fend for themselves. They didn’t even dare go outside their little room, though I doubted it was out of fear of judgement.
As far as they were concerned, the Organic and I were the only entertainment they had in the beginning. When Two-Limb startled to life at my hands, the dynamic of the place completely changed. We were watched constantly, as if expected to destroy one-another at the drop of a boot. It was infuriating.
I counted the days that had passed with a needle I had filched from Organic’s stash. Every day, I pricked myself in the forearm, going deep enough to make a little scar. In the dark, I often traced the lines of dots. If I was counting right, I had missed 238 sunrises since I had first arrived.
Ace thought my new dots were pretty shine. He would sit by me and touch the painful skin, beaming. Sooner than later, he had come to start pricking my arm for me, one new cut before we both went to bed each night. It became our routine.
Sitting next to his cot, Ace rolled up my sleeve methodically, being careful not to disrupt the healing scars closer to my elbow. It was quiet; even Two-Limb had managed to awkwardly recline against the wall and get comfortable. He didn’t sleep much; he had to concentrate on applying pressure to his oozing cheek with a spare rag he had snatched from the waistband of my skirts.
The sight of him glaring at me made my hand ache, despite the cut having longed scarred over with some of Organic’s hair-thread stitches (which explained the odd patchiness on his scalp).
“…’E won’t let m’stitch up his face,” I said, wincing a little when Ace’s steady hand pressed the needle into my skin.
“Those scars are ‘is livelihood. Spent hundreds of days tearin’ his face up an’ lettin’ it heal t’get it the way it was,” he said, moving quickly to stick the needle between his teeth and plug the tiny wound with his thumb.
“Psh, his scars were rusted. Yours are different,” I said, the smile he formed around the needle making me warm. He was so easy to please, that charming old bastard.
“Now you’ve got’em, too,” he said, holding up my arm for me to see. “Looks like tire skin. Real good work, you’ve done.”
“No one t’see ‘em, though,” I sighed, gazing at the door across the way, which only ever opened to let food in and waste like Organic out. “So rusted, all o’ this.”
Ace sighed and plucked the needle from the place it had sat, dangling at the corner of his drooping mouth. I had noticed the growing swell of his mouth, but I said nothing. No use reminding folks about their deaths, not even kami-crazy War Boys.
“…thi’s what happens, girly,” he said, opening his palms to the ceiling and gesturing with a few half-hearted jerks of his hands. “Yeah, this’s what happens, when y’fall and end up under the tires.”
“Y’end up less than roadkill,” I said dryly, leaning backwards until my head hit Ace’s shoulder.
I thought he might push me away, but he let me stay there. His short beard was scrubbing the crown of my head, and though I wished I could shave it for him, the only one allowed to carry knives was Organic. He had even taken my cord-cutting knife away, after finding it under my sleep-mat. I let him take it, no fight. It was just an ordinary knife, up here, after all.
I tilted my head up at him, and I spotted a single tear carving its way through the dried white paint on his cheeks, the only paint that was left on him after all this time. I panicked a little, and sat straight up, but Ace didn’t stubbornly wipe it away like I might have expected from some of his younger Boys; he let it flow, down, down, down, until it disappeared under his facial hair.
“…but you’re still writhin’, ain’t you, Ace?” I asked, my throat shockingly tight. My scarred hand, the one that still hurt so much, grabbed him hard around the shoulder.
I couldn’t control myself. I leaned into his lean shoulders and wrapped my arms around him. He was warm and strong, familiar, despite the reek that was coming off of him. I coiled my arms under his pits and squeezed hard.
“You ain’t dead yet,” I assured him.
I felt his hands turn to rest along the length of my bony spine, and after a moment, gently pull me away of him. He looked stern, and the blood rushed from my face- I knew when I had overstepped my boundaries.
“No huggin’ the Ace, smeg,” he snapped, though his tone reminded me more of the way a parent would discipline a rowdy pup than anything else.
I scoffed and got to my feet. “Get some sleep, Old-Balls. You’re gettin’ loopy.”
“No orderin’ the Ace ‘round, neither!”
I left him at his bunk in the dark. In the low light of torches, I could see the outline of him and his bald, shiny head ease himself onto his back, as well as the figures of many others. War Boys, I had noticed, often piled together to sleep, perhaps to ward off the cold, perhaps to escape the discomfort of loneliness. I spotted a large group of around eight of them, at the far end of the room, laying askew one-another, heads on stomachs and legs entangled in legs; nearer to me, there was a pair of Boys, snuggling tight into one-another, one of their hands on the other’s ass and holding it in a comically tender squeeze. Even after Ace had settled, one of his buddies scooted over and laid beside him before going right back to bed. In the dark, they were endearing, and human, these boys.
After so many days with them, I was still neglected. There was no cuddling with them, or sharing meals, or even having simple talks with any of them. Ace was my only link into their world, and even then, I’m sure the only reason he spoke to me was to assure the others that I wasn’t some exotic form of wild prey they could chop up and swallow. Even then, some of the Boys still tried their hardest to prove the Ace wrong and swallow me whole regardless.
I could hear Two-Limb’s huffing in the dark. He still was unable to do much else but sit up and hold his face. He couldn’t even eat right.
In the narrow hallway between the Boys’ bunks, I shuffled carefully in Two-Limb’s direction. Even from a distance, I could see how swollen the left side of his face was, pumped with puss and aqua cola from the injury I had given him. His eye on that shut was near-completely engulfed with the puffy skin of his face, and now, he could only use his irritated right eye to send me glares.
As I walked towards him, he followed me, his half-good pink eye rolling with me and stopping when I stood in front of him. We didn’t have much distance between us, perhaps only five feet, but it was enough to keep him from lunging over and knocking me down. I hadn’t been this close to him since he had bitten me.
“You dead yet, Two-Limb?” I asked, and he growled and wriggled in his seat, like I pup trying desperately to walk when told to stay where they were.
“You should’a let me go,” he snarled, and I cocked my head at him. “Would’a seen the Gates by now! Now I’m stuck starin’ at the burnt-up asshole you’ve got for a face ev’ry cripin’ day.”
“You Boys an’ your Gates,” I sniffed, remembering Pit’s blabberings about the chrome place that was Valhalla. “They wouldn’t let no one like yourself in, not when you’ve got piss leaking from your gearstick and your face the way it is.”
“That’s your fault, you bag of rusted bolts!” he barked, and I saw him raise his free stump of an arm at me accusingly. I imagine, if he still had his hand, he might have been pointing at me.
“My fault?! Fuck you, war fodder! You bit me! All I did was try and feed you!”
Two-Limb deflated a little, but drove himself right back up to high speed within seconds.
“You would be fuckin’ dead, you know that, wretch?” he seethed, his eyes blooming with fresh, toxic life. “I could’a crushed your fangin’ spine, with a few more seconds. I hate you.”
“Well, shit, ‘ere I was thinkin’ I was gonna get in your pants between now and sunrise! Suck yourself off, Two-Limb, you’ve already been doin’ it for days.”
“It’s Slit, you mediocre piece of scrap!”
Slit. It was true, his name wasn’t some joke- if it had been, I would have been disappointed. I liked to think I was cleverer than the War Boys, and with this little shiny piece of truth, it seemed for once that I was right.
My lips quirked. I couldn’t help myself. It was too good. This was all just perfect.
I snorted and covered my mouth with my hand, if only to keep myself quiet for the sake of the other sleeping Boys. At this point, Two-Limbed-Slit could rip every hank of hair from my head with nothing but his fist, and I would still be able to find something to giggle about.
A wet, heavy mass smacked me hard in the face, just below my mouth and right above my neck. I couldn’t tell what it was in the dark, but Two-Limbed-Slit’s exposed, raw face, dripping blood and puss and everything rotten under the sun onto my freshly-cleaned floors made me heave with disgust.
“Mother-fucker!” I roared, ignoring the loud groans of groggy War Boys as they tossed and turned around me.
“Should’a cut my lancing arm while you had the chance, wretch,” he snarled, watching me irritably wipe my face with my sleeves to try to remove all the sick his face-rag had left behind.
“I’m goin’ t’sew you up somethin’ ungodly,” I spat, kicking the wet mass back at him with my bare foot. “You ain’t gettin’ nothin’ but needle from me, you hear?!”
I saw Two-Limbed-Slit gather the soaked towel from the ground, ball it up, and gather it back against his face, despite it having it been exchanged between us like shared lizard on a stick. I felt vomit come up again, but I swallowed hard. That smeg didn’t deserve to see my tube-juices, let alone to see at all.
His broad smile made me thunder, and to my horror, he removed the rag to stick his long tongue through the hole in the side of his face. A taunt. Come and try me, wretch.
I tapped my wrist at him, and despite the oddity of the Before-Time symbol, he snorted and tossed his head.
Just give me enough time, you slimy bastard, and I’ll try you, alright.
Also, ya'll can thank MonsterBrush for encouraging me to post this VERY mediocre drawing I did of our favourite midwife.
Chapter 11: Chapter 10
Rush weighs her options with a tiny glass bottle.
Whenever I did something foolish during my youth, Pa would often recount the events of the day that I had almost died at the hands of a creature the size of a creature no bigger than my foot. Ever since I had been born, Pa had brought me out for longer and longer periods of time during the harsh daytime. When my skin had still been soft all over, I stayed within the shady confines of the tent; once I had begun crawling, Pa allowed me a few moments a day outside around dusk. It was safest, he claimed, for I wouldn’t burn, and it was cool enough to leave me content enough when wearing nothing but the skins of my birth.
I hadn’t wandered far, on my hands and knees, and Pa wasn’t worried about leaving me with the company of others besides himself and Maude. Though I was still plump and juicy, devouring me would have left them with Pa on their backs, and Pa was not a man to be trifled with, when he was in one of his moods. By the way he told it, I was gone for less time than it took for the sun’s colours to banish themselves from the sky at sunset, and they would have left me by my lonesome if I hadn’t begun wailing and cawing like a bitter crow.
Pa had found me on my bare back in the sand, my angry fists beating the air, all pink and pale, with two pock-marks on my upper lip and chubby thumb. Beside me, a wriggling hairy-toed land-shrimp was struggling to right itself just as much as I was, its pale stinger twitching in the cool breeze. In my hunger, I had snatched at a scorpion and it had given me a pair of kisses.
From then on, when I got into a scrape, Maude would wrap me tight against her in the sand, lick away the salty aqua cola from my cheeks and praise me, because at least you haven’t tried your luck at matin’ with land-shrimps again. I had never thought one could be less foolish than I, but I was younger, then. Foolishness was as universal as the breath and dust in our lungs, and I was quick to learn that some breathed much harder than others.
I was, by all definition, the heaviest of heavy breathers.
From the moment I rose from my caught from my first altercation with Two-Limbed-Slit, I was furiously determined to fix his fucking ugly mug if it would kill me. My opportunities to strike, like that faithful land-shrimp, were slim, and stuffed between the Organic’s fat digits, I knew I would only have small timeframes to work with if I wanted Two-Limbed-Slit’s face to be restored to its former state of semi-normalcy. When my days had previously been filled with a suffocating mixture of dread and boredom, I found new life in my little challenges. I was becoming the thief of my childhood all over again.
The needle was already available to me, and though it was already used and bloodied by my own fluids with my nightly arm carvings, I figured Two-Limbed-Slit’s face couldn’t get more infected if he tried. The worst that could possibly happen while I was stitching him up was kill him, but that didn’t seem overly dramatic. I had become an expert at hauling bodies about in the last few hundred days.
As for the thread, sneaking up on a slumbering Organic and stealing his greasy locks was too risky. He already disliked me more than words, proven by the way he sneered at me every time we caught eyes, and the bastard stared at his rusted face in anything sporting even the grimiest of reflections. He would notice eventually, and being removed from my position here would surely mean a trip back down the Lift, something I wouldn’t dare risk.
I supposed shaving-day would have to come around eventually.
Organic bitched and moaned about the entire affair for long spans of time, that morning, barely taking time to blink between his rantings. Though he was the closest thing to a head nurse-doctor-man our ward hard, he didn’t find any particular value in spending his time around the Boys more than was precisely required. At this point, the Boys tolerated my presence through ignorance, thinking of me as no more than a shadow, something to distract them in times of great pain or loneliness, but I was still nothing more than a rusted wretch with too much time on my hands. Organic remained a target.
Ace’s pleasant demeanor around me and my scuffle with Two-Limbed-Slit had given me enough leeway to become less of a victim and more of a bystander. Of course, I still argued with anyone who dared cross me, but my temper was quickly forgotten. It was only when I drew blood that I was respected, if only until the Boys’ noontime nap rolled around. It was enough to keep me from bruising too much, at least.
A sharp elbow in my side made me grunt. How was it that I always spoke too soon for my own good?
“I’m gettin’ white-haired, wretch,” one of my many scruffy patients groaned, gesturing to Organic with his littlest finger, the last digit he had left on his right hand. A rumpled bolder plopped on the horizon line, Organic looked like the physical personification of a fist-fucking in the trunk of a moving car. His head, plopped back against the wall, reminded me of the time in the Citadel Blood Shed, all cola-less and sleepy.
Another elbow. My growl. “Y’want t’talk about white hair? Go bitch to th’Ace, and give me a forkin’ moment,” I snapped, standing swiftly and glancing at Two-Limbed-Slit.
Still swollen, his face, and I could tell the rags he had nicked from me weren’t doing much to hold in his glossy, yellow-red blood much longer. Only a few more days until he croaked, if he was lucky.
“Organic! Are we movin’, or are we movin’?” I demanded, wishing I had Maude’s steel-toed boots as I approached his languid form- they made such a damn shiny sound, when they hit stiff ground.
Despite having called his name, Organic stared straight ahead of him, grinning and huffing and looking mad out of his mind. For a jubilating instant, I thought he was dying, but when he heaved in an awkward breath and a groan, I knew I wasn’t so lucky.
The source of his state, I quickly discovered after firmly deciding he wasn’t on the verge of croaking, came from a tiny medicinal bottle he had clasped loosely in his hand. Dark in colour, tinted glass, with a tightly-screwed cap. My mind raced and crashed and raced again, and a glorious smile, one I was sure I hadn’t displayed since my childhood, filled me with enlightening glee.
Organic had just kissed a scorpion.
Snatching the bottle out of his hands, I eagerly held it up to the light and danced away when he attempted to come after me. I felt lightheaded, and stars were beginning to dust my vision, but I was strangely careless.
“Organic,” I breathed, clutching the little bottle and watching his weak muscles struggle to carry him across the room towards me.
“Oh, Organic, if this’s what I knew my shit was goin’ to, I would have fucked you for it.” Organic wasn’t just leaving this shithole for sex. He wasn’t stealing shit to pay for beds. He had something even better waiting for him on the other side in exchange for his scavenged prizes.
This rusted mother of a crazed nut had gotten his hands on fume.
Instinctually, I wanted to find myself the quietest corner the Blood Shed could offer me, and huff the stuff until I forgot my own name. I had seen the effects this kind of stuff had on every wretch in the Wasteland. If one was lucky enough to trade things around in Gastown and get their hands on a bottle of fume, they were considered to be the only thing of value between the sand and the Citadel.
I had had my first experimental hit of the stuff when I had first successfully delivered a pup without Maude in the tent, a trust-catch, as she called it. Its mother didn’t have any aqua cola to give us, I recalled, but when Maude was offered a similarly medicinal bottle for my good work and eagerly took a sniff of it, I knew it didn’t really matter. At 5000 days, I had become the wind.
Organic’s state would begin to falter in a handful of minutes. My window of opportunity, as Maude would say, was soon going to be closed.
Up unto that point, I had never believed I would be able to find it in myself to be running towards Two-Limbed-Slit, especially with a stash I had nicked off of the most powerful man in the entire Third Tower. If I had been smarter, I might have run out the door, found a desperate enough wretch, and gotten enough rations to last me the time it would take for me to find more work.
A part of me believed the risk was worth it. Even if the Wife found me, even if I got sent back down the Lift, I would have made a bargain to make Pa proud.
As I reached Two-Limbed-Slit’s bedside, I hesitated.
Mother, why did I hesitate?
He stared at me, blood dripping from his face, and sneered. I wanted to run. It would be so easy to run. But seeing all the red made me think of Maude.
My first failed birth had been about 500 days after Maude’s trust-catch. I hadn’t had enough sleep or aqua cola, that evening, and when the pup slipped into my hands, I didn’t notice the cord around its neck, wrapped tight to the point of purpling the pup’s little face. I cut the pup loose from its mother, coddled it in a spare rag, and placed it at its mother side as I helped her with the afterbirth. I had been so exhausted that I hadn’t even noticed that it wasn’t squealing like most pups usually did. It was only when I called Maude in to help me dispose of the bloodied sheets I had placed under the mother’s hips that she had realized my mistake.
I was beaten to the point of screams, when we returned to our tent, beaten with near-everything in damned sight. I didn’t remember much besides the pain, save one thing that Maude had snarled at me just before grating her fingernails down my back.
If your mistake leads t’ someone croakin’, then you’re the one who deserves to die.
I collapsed at Two-Limbed-Slit’s side and grabbed the needle I had filched from the folded section of my hair wrap, sticking it in my mouth as I had seen Ace do when giving me my scars. Thread, I still didn’t have any damn thread. I was hoping to find some loose hair after shaving some of the Boys, but I didn’t have enough time to ask for volunteers and find a knife. I could hear Organic, perhaps a few dozen feet behind me, threatening me with slurs and the angry clomping of his shoes.
You work fast, Rush?
Squeezing my eyes shut and digging my hands up and under my hair wrap, I bit down hard on my lip and pulled.
If Two-Limbed-Slit wasn’t holding his soaked towel across his mouth like he was, I was sure he would have slurred at me. I looked kami-crazy, I was sure of it.
From the multiple days of neglect, and stress, and malnutrition, it didn’t take much force for a clump of my hair to come out with a decent enough pull. My head throbbed as Organic screamed behind me.
Mmm-hmm, fastest, most effective pup-catcher this side of the Wasteland.
I blindly threaded the needle I had stuffed in my mouth; that was when Two-Limbed-Slit started squirming, scooting backwards on his tail bone to get away from me. I could nearly feel Organic’s breath on my back. War Boys around me revved up in anticipation for a fight. I wasn’t quick enough, I wasn’t quick enough, I wasn’t--
My head flew to the side when I spotted baldness in my peripheral. My head wrap fluttered to the ground and let my black hair loose into my eyes, but I still bore witness.
Ace was crouched a handful of feet away from me, wearing an expression of utter solemnity. I couldn’t read anything on his face, save the map of scars cutting into his skin.
He was waiting for my cue.
I had turned back to my work by the time I had heard the Organic’s heavy body hit the ground and the entire ward roar with excitement. I was probably missing the fight of a fucking lifetime, and I mourned my bad planning. Stupid Rush, stupid reckless smeg.
The bottle in my hand trembled as I crawled towards Two-Limbed-Slit. He did not fear me, but his suspicions regarding the bottle were clear. I wish I had time to explain. All I could do was smile as I grabbed the back of his head with my free hand.
“You’re going t’love me after this, war fodder,” I said around the needle between my lips. I turned the cap with my gloved thumb after a few clumsy tries, flicked it away, and held the bottle to Two-Limbed-Slit’s busted face.
His breaths were shallow, but enough to get him to slow his breathing and slump onto his elbows, dropping the towel that had been married to his face for days. It was a wonder he hadn’t already died from the blood loss. Lucky, lucky bastard.
As the world around me crumbled and the sounds of broken bones timed my stitches, I closed up Two-Limbed-Slit’s face with my own long, dark hair. Puss and aqua cola and blood and saliva oozed from him as I worked, tainting my already soiled clothes, but I was too concentrated to care.
At least if Maude died, she could die knowing I wasn’t a failure like Pa. That is, if she could remember my name.
Chapter 12: Chapter 11
Rush discovers that there are no real keys.
The Boys in the ward had not learned my name in the many days I had been caring for them, but such realities did nothing to perturb me. My anonymity was a blessing in a place as dangerous and as sparse of people as the Wasteland. My normalcy, my lack of tumours and symmetrical face, had originally been considered an issue, but that was quickly corrected with the edge of a blade; the same went for my tendency towards thievery, though the blade had become a cord-cutting knife. Things were always capable of change, and one was always able to get lost in a crowd, if they were careful enough.
After the scuffle with Organic, and the news of my successful stitching of the biggest ward rat’s infected cheek, the acknowledgement of my presence had begun to drift around the place like an airborne disease. Sister filched from the Organic Mechanic, they breathed to one another as I handed out rations. Sister and the Ace got a two-man crew, they hummed, daring to edge close to me as I scrubbed at bandages with our diminishing supply of aqua cola. Sister got the fume. Sister got Slit tuned up. Sister tried to touch the sun, but keeps getting burned.
Organic was bound and placed in the corner of the room furthest from the door, and his injuries only allowed him to open his eyes several hours after the fight, though that could have also been the effects of the fume running out of his system. Ace had pummelled him something monstrous- there wasn’t an inch of his face that was still the colour of skin. The Organic Mechanic got given a real good paint job, they snickered, crawling up to him and prodding at his purple face and broken nose, cackling at the sound of his stifled shouts, which had been muffled behind the gag stuffed in his mouth. I barely needed to look at him to see the extent of Ace’s work- near-every bone in his face had been fractured or broken, and blood was choking him. Unlike Two-Limbed-Slit, we gave him no food or rags with which to clot his wounds. It would be a matter of days before he died.
Ace had assigned someone to stand by his body and prod it every so often, if only to check for signs of life. Even with this new post (Ace had jokingly called began calling the position Vulture), I still wearily gazed at his bruised and bloodied body, reeking with the piss he had let loose during the fight still lingering in his trousers. There was a sense of pride in seeing the man that had abused his power over me for hundreds of days laying near-lifeless in a corner, but I knew that if I indulged in that pleasure for too long, I would descend into madness.
I sat by Two-Limbed-Slit while the others regrouped, speaking in low tones and glancing at Organic every couple of breaths, as if to reassure themselves that he wouldn’t somehow crawl towards the door and fetch help by the time they finished their respective conversations. Some spoke of eating him, but his meat would only last a handful of days and there was no way of cooking it without alerting the proper Blood Shed behind the door. Leaving and finding shelter elsewhere would be impossible: there were too many limbless or immobile Boys to get very far without help. We had two choices: return the man to the proper Blood Shed and hope he didn’t live, or slice his throat and pray the Wives wouldn’t discover who had killed him.
I glanced down at the body of the man that used to be the big gun. Under the influence of fume, Two-Limbed Slit was morose and confused, leaking aqua cola and crying out in his sleep for a man I did not know. Nux.
I felt a kinship to him, when he was in such a state. There were many times I wished I could cry out for Maude, but I did not have the luxury of drugs to excuse me from my sanity as he did. I had shattered the bottle of fume the moment I had finished delivering Two-Limbed-Slit from his pain, and though the glass had cut through my gloves and injured my previously delicate hand, I was too focused on keeping my patient’s thick fingers from tugging out his fresh stitches.
When he was too lost in his memories and exhausted to fight my hand, Two-Limbed-Slit responded well to the delicacy of my touch. The smeg still pulled face around his stitches and grunted, but I assumed those reactions were positive when he refused to bite me, even when I touched his mouth. He looked a wreck- his dark hair was beginning to hang past his ears, and his facial hair was growing out comically around his scars. It made him look ridiculous, especially when the dark oil marks near the roots of his hair and the pockets of his eyes still clung to his skin.
I laughed at the state of those around me, the men washed out by time, if only to keep my mind occupied and off the fact that I, too, was soon meant for death. The Wife had not wanted me here in the first place; my failure would mean complete expulsion from the life my Pa had once so desired. I had little time left. The pup’s head, airless, had already begun to turn purple. I had delivered it into this world, so I had no choice but to loosen the cord.
I reached over Two-Limbed-Slit and gently touched Ace’s thigh with my fingertips, my eyes glued to my hair, woven into the War Boy’s flesh. We had mixed blood, and now he bore a part of me in him- he and I were what Maude would call blood brothers. I hated the thought of it.
“I’m going t’talk t’Organic,” I said as Ace turned to me.
Ace chuckled and brushed me off with a cocked brow. “No need. ‘E’ll be gone, if we wait a little longer.”
“And then what?” I demanded. “He’ll be gone, and what? W’all starve after we eat ‘im? We wait ‘til the Wife comes ‘round and finds us diggin’ through his bones? The Wives, they sent y’here t’get a tune-up, but they’ll wreck you all over again if they find out what y’did.”
Ace hardened behind his beard.
“Naw,” he grunted. “You’ll be th’one wrecked, girly.”
I blustered and paused. He was right. There was no use fighting what I knew was true- no matter how close we had grown, his life and mine were not the same. Though the Boys had just called me Sister and began to register my presence in their weakened minds, I was not them.
My fists tightened in the stained fabric of my skirts.
“…I’m going t’talk t’Organic.”
Heavy on my thigh, my pouch of red ochre bounced against me as I walked. I had not painted myself in over a hundred sunrises. Though I was tempted to lick my thumb and bathe myself in the stuff, my hands did long for the thickness of war paint. Instead, I reached up and tightened the wrap around my head.
Organic’s eyes, despite the puffy skin surrounding them, rose to me, and though it would have been far easier for me to kneel and speak to him, I refused to bend a knee. I wanted him to look upon me, in stained and ragged clothes, looking worse than I had ever been, missing two of my molars and beginning to lose my hair.
“I don’t know why I didn’t leave this place days ago,” I said, the steadiness in my voice both a shock and a comfort. “It don’t matter, though. I’m leavin’ now, an’ you’re comin’ with.”
Organic made a mock-inquisitive voice in the base of his throat, and coughed up blood because of it. It dripped from his lip, and yet, he still wore a shit-eating grin.
My words were of no use in this strange, dark place. I knew so. My urge to curse and name-call was stronger than I was, but I restrained myself. My bare foot rose with my anger, and blindly, I pressed the dirty sole into his shoulder and leaned in.
Organic howled and choked and howled again. I pressed harder, until I was sure he could see the rage behind my gaze.
“This’s what’s goin’t happen, Mechanic,” I muttered, furrowing my brows. “I’m goin’t drag y’out o’here, and we’re goin’t find the Wife, and y’ain’t goin’t say a word. And damn you, Organic, if y’even think ‘bout croakin’, I will fuckin’ tear your cock off an’ stick it in your rusted mouth before you could take your last breath.”
Organic screamed at me, and flecks of his blood ended up on the inside of my thighs. I ignored the sensation, burned it from my mind, reached out and grabbed his broken nose. My injured hand squeezed his nostrils shut, while the other pointed into his paling face as he wailed.
“Did you hear?!” I roared, and when he helplessly nodded around my grasp, I continued to stare into the bloody texture of his face. Mother almighty, was his skin rough.
I slowly removed my weight from him, my mind heavy with fog. I had no idea what I was doing. I had encouraged patient mutiny, and was about to lie to the woman who had given me a chance at life.
In moments such as those, dragging the Organic’s heavy body towards the door with my complete strength, I strangely thought of Jericho. The day I had refused to give him my aqua cola was the day he had folded himself into me and claimed me for his own, in a way indescribable to one who had not lived the terror of it all themselves. His filth had lingered in me for months before I dispelled it from myself, from both body and mind. He had taken my blessings and made them his routine.
These Boys were manic. They snapped and writhed and kicked and spat, and yet, despite it all, I adored them. They lived when I could not, and clung to every speck of pure white paint on their bodies that they possibly could. It was magnificent. It was chrome.
Now, I was completing their journey where their injured bodies could no longer take them. I was delivering their fragile minds to Valhalla by my own soft and scarred hands.
I paused to open the door with my free hand, and glanced over my shoulder at the Boys in the room. Grotesque with burns and amputations, dying from lack of proper food and water, relying on nothing but a manufactured image of gates they would never come to see, I pitied them. Poor, poor Boys.
“I’m goin’t come back,” I assured them, and the crowd bobbed as the men that formed it nodded. It was odd, to see such a unified reaction come out of them that hadn’t been barked out as an order.
Two-Limbed-Slit sat up in his cot, testing his swollen jaw and the strength of his stitches. His oily eyes, free of the cling of fume, did not have the ability to soften.
I prompted him with a jerk of my chin. He laid back down and folded his hands across his stomach.
“…naw, wretch, you won’t.”
I nearly lost my grip on Organic’s tunic as my strength faltered. My muscles screamed with having to lug the weight of a man around, a weight I hadn’t realized I had been carrying until someone questioned me. Organic had felt light as a pup, but a moment ago, but in retrospect, I had been aching from the start.
I glanced back towards the door, the one I had often seen Organic walk through and disappear behind for hours on end, and reached out with my free hand to touch its handle. There were no keys to the door, no locks, nothing keeping me in. I could have left days ago, but somehow, it was only when Organic was broken before my eyes that I realized how easy it could have been to walk away. Just because others hadn’t had the ability to leave before me did not mean I couldn’t.
I curled my fingers around the handle and pulled. The scent of crisp, fresh air filled me and stung at the tire skin texture of my arms. The Organic’s stench was so strong, once I took a good, clean breath of air, but it was easy to ignore once my head began clearing. As I pulled his weight out into the hallway, I looked in upon the dank place I had called home for so long. How could so many have thrived in such a place?
My gaze landed on Two-Limbed-Slit, and, despite myself, I grinned. He did not see my pride- rather, he did not wish to see- but I smiled and smiled nonetheless.
“Witness me,” I said, and as I began pulling Organic’s weight down the long hall, I thought I tasted lizard and milk.
I had never known my real mother. There had been days when, in the dead of night, I could feel Pa rub my back at my side and murmur about someone I had never seen, calling me by a name that was not my own. He had always praised me for my resemblance to my mother, regardless of how much of an issue it caused when I was out and about before my scarring, and I took pride in knowing that I could bring him some meager form of honor in my full lips and dark eyes.
Maude had known my mother, in life, if only for a short amount of time before she passed. Built like a mountain, your mother, she often reminisced when she would notice me struggle to carry my heavy bag of supplies from one tent to the next. If not for my father, who I clung to during my first months of life like a tumour, I am sure no one would have believed my motherly relations. It was only once I grew into my body, passed my 4000 days, that I began receiving toothless smile and loving pats on the cheek by those aged enough to see the resemblance between me and the woman who had carried me through her work days, heavy in her stomach but unrelenting in her drive to survive. Mag-Dala’s daughter, through and through, they began to say when they heard of my pup-catching abilities despite my youth.
My mother was an icon, even in death; Maude was respectable and not to be trifled with; my father had been named Mercedes Man and had gazed into the burn of the heavens. I was nothing. Even my softness, so rare and valued in a calloused world, had been taken from me.
My reappearance in the proper Blood Shed seemed to have startled everyone present- I was barely dressed, my clothing having long been cut short in order to provide more fabric for bandages, and I was so absurdly dirty and matted that I must have seemed like no more than walking nest of blood and hair. The sight of me might have alarmed the nurses enough to ensure a concerned question, but the trail of blood Organic had left behind got them to call the Wife.
In the time it took for them to sit me down and wrap my scarred arm (I tried to explain the reason I carried a pin in the fabric of my hair wrap, but they only offered me concerned gazes and confiscated the damn thing before I could get a word in), the Wife had arrived, taking swift, purposeful steps in my direction.
She really was a thing of beauty. My mouth went moist at the sight of her, though I hadn’t had a drink of aqua cola in a long while, and my chest ached as she took a seat beside me, grasping my hands. I had forgotten my gloves back with the Boys, but I was glad to feel her skin on mine, even if she had left me to the vultures and allowed them to pick the meat off my bones for hundreds of days. I forgave her. It was easy to forgive the life-changing.
“Oh, Mother, look at you,” she mourned, gazing down at my ribs and the pallor of my skin. Her hands squeezed tight enough to cause pain, but I allowed her that subconscious comfort. Her eyes were steely despite the quaver in her voice; she looked up and over my shoulder, down the darkened hall.
Hearing her call upon the Mother made my skin pucker. I hadn’t heard anyone mention Her name in what felt like one hundred lifetimes.
The Mother was sacred, and for a grand portion of my youth, I prayed to Her every sunrise and sunset. Maude had long ago given me a verbal list of reasons to pay respect whenever I had the chance. If I refused, I was lazy and selfish and too high-and-mighty, worse than the rot on Joe’s back. I was to pray for swift births and for my lack of tumours, for drops of aqua cola or a nightmareless rest. I was to pray for everything. Everything. With the Boys, under their stares, in the belly of dozens of beasts, I could find nothing to give thanks for, and nothing to give thanks to. The Mother had died in that place, and from Her ashes, a scarred version of myself had been born.
“Don’ look at me,” I said, baring my yellow teeth in a smile-snarl I had learned to perfect from watching Ace bark at his Boys. “Ain’t nothin’ much t’see.”
The Wife kept looking, hard and long, and focused her attentions on my scars. She released one of my hands to cup my face where the scar pecked my cheekbone. Concern did not do much for the Wife’s pretty face- it washed her out completely, made her look like a dead pup straight out the soft bits.
“Are you in pain?” she asked, and I shrugged. I felt fine. I always felt fine, unless I was dying. Dying was distinct in the best and worst of ways. At least, if you were on your way out, there was no beating around the bush, as Maude would say. You knew.
“Sure, but I don’t mind. Ain’t nothin’ I haven’t felt before,” I said, and opened my mouth wide for her to look past my tongue. My molars, two neighbours on the right side of my maw, were shattered completely, and I had to exclusively chew on my left side now, if I decided I wanted to gnaw on anything at all. I knew, before I even needed to see her face fall, that the only one with enough experience to pull them from my gums was Organic, who was bleeding so bad in the cot across from mine that they had to have a nurse doing nothing but mopping up the blood.
Maude would be able to do it, if I went back down the Lift. She knew a shit-tone of teeth-yankers willing to work for nothing but the tooth itself. When times got tough enough, they could make a profit selling them to gummy old folk who needed replacements. Stealing from the toothful and giving to the toothless- it was fucking poetry, whatever that was.
“Rush,” she said, ignoring the pleased smile I wore when she spoke my name. “Rush, why didn’t you listen to me? I could have found you other work.”
I squirmed a little in my seat and chewed on the thinning skin of my thumb, a habit I had picked up after removing my gloves and keeping them off. If Maude were here, she’d slap me hard and bandage me up and tear my scalp off if she ever saw me picking at it again. The Wife didn’t do anything, just sat and watched, and a part of me hated her for it.
“…why were they there? That room?” I asked, watching Organic’s flailing form but a hairsbreadth from mine.
The Wife, in all her beauty, wrinkled her face subtly, the corner of her mouth twitching just so in reaction to my question, but she remained silently, pretending to distract herself by readjusting the bandage on my arm.
Fucking bitch, she knew.
I pulled the thin pole of my arm from her grasp, and she lurched with me, unwillingly to let me loose. She seemed surprised by my strength, her brows raising at me as she coiled her fingers back into her palms in a swift tuck.
“Why?” I asked again. “Why’d you stick ‘em with Organic? He barely fed ‘em! He barely fed me!”
“Rush, calm down. Organic was the only one willing to take them. What will be done with him will be decided after he is able enough to speak and think clearly,” she said, her sharp shoulder blades jutting up harshly against the back of her tunic, the wings of a stubborn crow, as she sat up straighter.
If Maude did speak of my mother, there were often three things that she brought up and conversation: her strength, which had passed over me like the early morning chill, her beauty, which I had inherited in minute fractions, and her irreversible temper. I was no Mag-Dala, but the fire in my blood could not be extinguished, no matter the bucketfuls of sand life decided to toss my way.
“Oh, fuck you, Wife!” I roared, storming to my feet and digging my clawed nails into the bandages around my arm, which were crisp and thick with freshness. I ripped the fabric from my skin with the harshest of tugs, freeing myself of the Wife’s confines, and the warm air of the Blood Shed almost felt cool against the burning scars.
When wild dingoes got foamy about the mouth and began snarling and spitting with madness, they would always kill the creature and dispose of the body, uncooked and uneaten. I had once mourned their deaths and my hungry belly, but Pa had offered me wisdom beyond my years. I could still feel his breath against my ear, if I concentrated hard enough.
If you can the eye-whites of anythin’ live enough to snap its jaws, you stand back or kill it on sight.
I fucking hoped the Wife could see mine.
“’Only one willing to take them?’ What am I, then?” I snarled, tossing the bandages at my bare feet. “Y’didn’t come check on ‘em, y’didn’t make sure they were still croakin’, y’didn’t do shit! Ain’t no one who knows those Boys like me! They’re dangerous, but they ain’t much more than that! Y’stuck ‘em there so that y’wouldn’t have t’stare an’ remember Joe! Y’locked up the nastiest Boys y’could find and prayed they would die off before anyone noticed what y’did to ‘em!”
I stepped off the cot where the nurses had sat me down and glowered down at the Wife.
She was trembling, all shoulders and elbows, and I could see the gleam of aqua cola running down her cheeks. Even in anger and in sadness was she stunning, a weeping fire. There were very few who had the luxury of looking beautiful in times of distress.
“You know nothing,” she cried, and though it pained me to hear the evident conviction in her voice, conviction that I knew could only stem from truth, my pride deafened me. I turned my cheek to her.
“Y’left us there t’rot,” I said, clutching my empty stomach. “I don’t need t’know more than that.”
I walked out of the carnage the way I came, all those days before, and thought of Ace. I missed his reassurance, and his warm touch, despite his disposition towards sternness. I thought of Maude, who would never let me back despite her love for me. I brought you into this world, she’d say, but I won’t bring you back in again if you turn your back on it. I thought of Pa, who would surely do worse than ignore me, if he was still alive.
I thought of my mother.
She had been shot in the stomach after a barter gone wrong, and Maude had to slice me free from her. She had survived long enough to see me grow some, but the infection killed her; the story made my broken teeth ache.
I thought, for a moment, that the Wife might say something to stop me. I was sure she would order me down the Lift, or send someone after me as I strode out the room, but there was nothing there but crying and Organic’s screams. It was only when I glanced back from the hall and spotted her sniffling into her palms that I realized that we must have not been so different in age. If Pa hadn’t cut me up so young, made me a little ugly, I might have been snatched up to become a Wife, too.
I forgave her sadness. I always would. However, I could never accept her ignorance. Didn’t she know? Leave meat out too long, and it’s bound to attract flies.
I did not allow myself to stray too far from the entrance of the Blood Shed. Despite how much I wanted to leave, and despite how much I wanted to wring Organic’s skinny neck to smother his squealing, I had no idea where I was going. Moving forward into the darkness would instantly have me lost and alone; going back was being forced to face a snarling pack of waking terrors that I was not sure I would be able to fight off.
Pa was a scavenger, and one night, after days of foodlessness, he traded his favourite necklace for a bundle of six little horned lizards. The necklace was a silvery chain that was strung through a trinket he had salvaged from a wreck- it was three-pronged, and looked something like a star. From the day he had brought it back, people started respecting him. For a time, people called him ‘Mercedes Man’, though I’d never quite known why.
I had seen the wreck, but I had no title to bring back from it, and I had no people to shout my praises.
I thought about Mary.
Another version of Rush! I am on an ongoing quest to pinpoint exactly what she looks like. Apologies for the bad quality, the piece of paper I drew her on is tiiiiny. This version of her is a bit softer than the last. Tell me what you think below!
Chapter 14: Chapter 13
Rush is practical and looks down towards the sand.
When Maude began allowing me to perform more pup-catches and started to rely on my success more and more as a food source, she enjoyed joking about how much sleep she was getting in her old age, and how her old bones had never rested as well as they had in the cool sand. Ain’t nobody thinkin’ ‘bout hungriness, past sunset, she would say, and I relished the silence that accompanied the extinguishing of fires and final pisses. You find sleep, you’ve found temporary death. The expression had scared me, once, but on the nights where I could not bear to shut my eyes, temporary death was a goal I strived for at every moment.
Laying on my back, my palms cradling the sandy floors, I listened intently to the slow rumblings of the morning as the sun surely rose outside, a gleam I had still not seen. I had become adapted to the low light- would the sun burn me until I was blind and milky-eyed? The thought of losing my sight did not bother me as much as I thought it would have on any other day. My livelihood, like Two-Limbed-Slit’s staples, had been ripped from me by own accord. Stupid Rush, I thought as I rolled onto my side. Stupid, mediocre Rush.
I would have to face the Wife eventually. I knew that refusing to see her would assure me nothing but hundreds of nights in a cell, if they even had such imprisonment in this horrid place, or much worse if she had truly lost all her sympathy. I would have to tell her the truth behind the abuse Organic had suffered at my command; the thought of losing Ace to the wrath of a girl barely out of her own childhood had me anxiously picking at the dry skin of my lips with my long nails. If roadkill was still squirming, it was scooped up and eaten, and I couldn’t imagine the amount of ways they would be willing to cook a traitor like Ace.
Folks inside the Blood Shack rumbled to life, speaking in low tones, heavy tongues wagging in the cool air. I had not heard the Wife stop crying, the evening prior, nor had I seen her svelte shadow glide out of the room. I figured I must have dozed off despite my pain, grasped at temporary death before having it slip between my fingers. The thought of being so achingly close to the unattainable lit the guzzoline in my belly and made me roll irritably to my side. I could not allow those Boys to die. I had dragged the lot of them back from the edge. The Wife would regret ever letting me take one look at them, if she wanted them dead.
I would rise up, in this place, and become the sun these men had lacked. Folks would look upon me and know the day had begun.
I got to my knees with a huff and glanced at my surroundings: other than the handful of displaced voices murmuring in the other room, there was no sign that the nurses had returned to begin their morning duties. Not even the torches that usually lined the halls were lit yet. I did not have much time, but if I ever wanted to prove that I deserved to see Ace and his Boys again, this would be my final chance.
I had had enough of being teased with the uncertainty of a future I had planned out for myself. Success would not fall in my lap out of convenience. I would not be a hero. I had to reach out and claw for any purchase I could find during my fall; whether it would hold my weight or not was not for me to know.
The nurses would be here soon with rations, and I knew my Boys needed to eat.
Past the rows of cots and resting patients, past even the Organic, who had been patched up enough to manage more sleep than even I, I crawled on my hands and knees towards the place where I had learned to bite back when I was bitten and howl in the face of those who dared bark; the only place I had ever known where those inside could be selectively silent and survive on the sheer mass of their muscle alone; the only place I had ever known where those inside would rather cut than heal.
No one stopped my four-legged shuffle towards the heavy door. Even if they had seen me, crawling towards what they must have assumed to be my demise, there was no one around them to alert them. I felt at least a dozen eyes on my back, but no one reached out to grab me and keep me from my path, though I couldn’t fathom why. I didn’t weigh more than a couple of heavy jugs of aqua cola.
Once I reached the end of the hallway, I turned to face the folks who were following me without a step. Their eyes, wide in the dark to let the light in, blinked slowly at me, as if to assure they weren’t dreaming.
A finger flew up towards my lips when I saw one of their jaws slack. Quiet, please, I’ve got work to do. When they nodded at me sightlessly, I ran, all limbs and no muscle.
The door that I had left open unto Organic’s ward was still askew, never closed after I had gone. What lurked behind it was more familiar than the taste of the breeze at this point in my existence, but there was still an inkling of fear lurking behind the texture of the wood and the growing stench in the acidic air.
I used both hands to pull the door back, which was mistake. The moment my fingers curled around the thickness of the door, I jumped back when a foreign fist slammed inches from my fingers. I yelped with shock and managed to toe the door open with my heel before I was able to be assaulted again.
Two-Limbed-Slit leaned just beyond the threshold of the doorway, balancing on his one proper leg and pressing his shoulders back against the wall to keep himself upright.
“Y’want t’ send me you t’the fuckin’ grave, smeg?!” I hissed, though a part of me was delighted to see that he had not ripped my hair-stitches from his cheek, and the swelling hand gone down enough to allow him to see through his previously obstructed eye.
To my surprise, Two-Limbed Slit responded with nothing but a dismissive growl. Perhaps that was because Ace was leaning so close, just behind his shoulder, but I’d like to think it was because I had really put him in a corner. I was important. He couldn’t hit me. He needed me.
A din of multiple voices began screeching into the silence Two-Limbed-Slit left behind- some men groaned at the sight of me, deeming me useless, while others readily grabbed at each-other and garbled about returning to their garages or out on the road. Ace didn’t dare silence them, this time. He simply stepped out from behind Two-Limbed-Slit and grasped me firmly about the shoulder.
“Y’back for good, girly?” Ace asked morosely, raising his other hand to prod at one of the bags dangling under my eyes. No sleep almost always meant bad news, and he knew it.
I brushed him off with a step to one side. “No time for coddlin’,” I groused, my eyes falling over the crowd.
They looked absolutely disgusting, those Boys, unshaven and some still stuck in the ragged clothing they had gotten themselves injured in on the Fury Road. Despite the Wife hearing her own truths spilling from my lips, she had not yet sent help for them. Their current tendencies towards unease and thoughtlessness also indicated that they had not eaten; after my outburst, I was not sure they would even get their meals today.
My head pounded with the thought of having to provide for them all without Organic. Organic was the only willing to take them, she had said, which meant he was probably the only one who knew how to get his hands on such large quantities of food without going through the Wife, too. If I could move them all out of this room, for a start, I might be able to watch over them better. The place was too small for the lot of them, especially as the group gradually regained their ability to move around. It would be worse than ever before, soon- fights would break out and they would become gradually unhappier. I would not survive their discomfort and unhappiness.
Fresh light in small quantities poured in from the crack outside the door, making my head crane back to the watch the shadows of fire dance across the floor at my leisure. Over the roar I had created, I could hear indistinct greetings and a few stray ‘good-morning’s being passed around outside. The Wife was here. She must have returned for her sunrise rounds.
I had one shot. One bullet in one gun and one target and one hand bound behind my back.
I wiped the sweat building on my brow and squeezed my eyes shut until I could see stars in the darkness behind my eyes. I had missed the sight of them.
“All of you,” I yowled, my voice rising with every breath as I pointed blindly into the crowd. “All of you, kill your damn engines!”
Silence. Silence like I was still in the womb.
I opened my eyes, and my spotted vision blurred the faces of the crew I had gazed upon for nearly ten moon cycles, all patiently waiting for orders I didn’t know how to give. I felt Ace’s hand reach over and take me by the shoulder again, despite my demand not to be touched.
Sister and the Ace got a two-man crew.
I breathed in sharply through my nostrils, and recoiled my accusing finger from the crowd to my lips, where I swiftly tap the swell of my lower lip.
“If y’want t’ wake up an’ shit another day, then you’ll keep quiet, yeah?” I hissed. My Boys were smart- they didn’t even need to nod to confirm what I had said. Instead of lingering any longer than I needed to, I turned on my heel and turned to leave. My window was closing, and I was desperately trying not to get my fingers caught.
Two-Limbed-Slit gave me a look as I passed, all scar tissue and pulled lips, but instead of spitting at him, I waved my hand between him and the crowd and then gestured to my eyes. Watch them close, rustbucket, while I’m gone. Like he was still on fume, his facial muscles relaxed and, eyes to the floor, began to distractedly pluck at the stitches in his cheek. Cunt, he mouthed, but I ignored him. Two-Limbed-Slit was getting easier to manage. At least, if all of this refused to work, I could say I tamed the nastiest lizard in the entire War Boy ward.
I travelled back out the door with surprising ease, and back down the long hallway, which distinctly reminded me of a woman’s soft bits, the long birth canal that I would slid my fingers into in order to help pull out pups. The analogy made me smile: the bitch that was the Citadel was about to have a litter of the sharpest, meanest pups that she had ever known, and there were no soft hands needed for the comfort of this delivery.
Like a pretty insect pinned into a frame, a Before-Time hobby Pa had once compared to organic-scavenging, the Wife was exactly where I had placed her in my mind’s eye, leaning over a patient and worrying over some blood-soiled sheets. Under her eyes were a pair of bags identical to mine. It had never occurred to me that the woman who had helped Furiosa kiss the sun couldn’t find rest.
The patient she was fawning over noticed me before the others, and I recognized him as the man I had shushed as I returned to my Boys. The Wife found the source of his flabbergasted expression instantly. I had just crawled out of a spider’s nest and had the gall to throw myself right back in.
The Wife and I exchanged air, crisp and new, and I heard the catch of her breath in the near-silent room.
“I want t’show y’something,” I said, and while her lipped twitched as I had seen it done before as the stress washed over her, she began to approach me like one would approach an animal for slaughter.
“…I can’t,” she said, her voice like the gentle warbling of a delicate bird I had never heard. I could tell that, if I pushed, she would begin to cry again.
I sighed at her, but nodded and reached my hand out to her, a gesture of peace and trade, Pa’s two favourite things. She did not hesitate in taking it, which surprised me. Brave girl.
“…when I was still good at deliverin’ pups,” I said, moving to gently tuck her hand into the crook of my arm. “We had these pups that were born all crooked-like, foot-first. Called ‘em stargazers.”
I could feel her resisting as I began pulling her away from the cold comfort of the Blood Shed, and back into the tube-like hall I had scurried from like a newborn. Her boots were heavy on the ground, like mine had once been after Jericho, but she soon relented when she felt the new scar on my palm with a graze of her fingertips.
I smiled at her.
“Y’know what we used t’say, ‘bout stargazers?” I asked, spotting the door already from our spot at the other end of the hall.
The Wife shrugged at me, and I saw the aqua cola in her eyes. I’m sorry.
I smiled. S’okay.
“We used t’say, ‘Gotta pull ‘em out of the womb eventually. Can’t spend all day starin’ at satellites.’”
She smiled, and her tears fell, and suddenly, she felt a little lighter on my arm.
Come on, Wife, the stretch of my scars ordered. Let’s quit countin’ stars.
Chapter 15: Chapter 14
Rush sticks her foot in someone's face and raves about shit.
The Wife could not handle the stench.
In hindsight, I should not have rushed her down the hall as I had done. Perhaps it was because I could not manage another day, walking back from the light and into the dark like a night-adoring creature too frightened to be crisped by the sun. My circumstances were intense and too raw for the Wife to understand. I could not go back. I could not go back after this, or I knew I would rot there until my body gave in and was picked apart by the hungry Boys who would manage to outlive me.
A quiet part of me, smothered by the layers of dirt and blood caked to my skin and the shards of broken teeth in my gums, knew that the ward couldn’t truly be the end-all. Technically, if I tried hard enough, rationed well, stayed away from the sicker patients as best I could, I would be able to survive there. It was surely better than some places I had frequented in my early childhood. However, the thought of lingering made my body seize with discomfort. Survival alone could not be my end all. That was not why I had boarded the Lift to this torturous maze of a city. If it was, I would be fine, still sitting there with those Boys in the dark for ten thousand days more; I would still be with Maude, sandy and hungry and working only to distract ourselves.
There was a Before Time expression Pa used to hum: I’d spend forty years a slave for one moment of freedom. It had never occurred to me how long I had been chained, in the Wasteland. My survival had been my empty joy. How much more emptiness could I take before I swallowed myself up hole?
The Wife’s weight slumped and dragged behind me as we approached the door, and from my peripheral, I could spot her anxiously shaking her head, her smooth hand rising to cover her mouth and nose with the pressure of her palm. I could not blame her. No one’s piss smelled as good as your own. The hand that I had placed into the crook of my arm fell, too, and the wrinkling of the skin on her pale forehead made me pause.
The Wife had turned her shuddering gaze to the ground, unblinkingly staring at a lone pebble lingering at the toe of her boot. I saw her shoulders jump, and I thoughtlessly took her by the bicep. Though she was taller than I, her hunched back force me to drop to my knees before her if I wanted to join eyes.
She was clammy, despite herself, the bags under her eyes looking puffy and raw where her skin had swollen. She continued to aggressively shake her head, and though I thought she might scream for the nurses out of sheer panic, she remained eerily mute. She could not find the words to express what she needed. She reminded me of Pit, that way.
My hands hovered to take her by her spotted cheeks, but I did not dare brush her skin. Step One: Make sure the mother wants to be touched. She may not be ready to push just yet.
“It’s alright,” I said, forgetting my previous fury. “Y’see? Nothing’s wrong. Ain’t no one here but you and me. I’m goin’ t’touch you, alright? Nice and gentle-like.”
Even her head shook as I took it solidly in my hands. I could still feel the slight pull of her muscles, her body revolting against my own, as I rose to gingerly tap foreheads with her. When I was that close, I could hear meek whimperings escaping her throat. What had happened? She had been find. We had been fine. Tears poured from her face, and though I instinctively wished to inform her that she was wasting aqua cola, I could not bear to have her break down further than she already was. I was so close.
“I don’t want to see,” she wheezed, dropping her hands in order to wrap her arms around me. Though I cringed at the sheer tightness of her arms against my ribs and the sharpness of her chin transferring to my shoulder, I returned her embrace and half-greedily coiled my fingers in her curly hair. Perhaps, if mine was as clean as hers, it would feel equally as soft; perhaps my tumbleweed could be piled up high like hers, too, no hair wrap needed.
Her cheek pressed against my neck, and I removed my fingers to pat her hair instead.
“Yes,” I said, “I know.”
She was leaning her weight on me, now, I was not sure how much longer I would be able to hold her up. I began bending my knees and, to my relief, she followed suit, until we were both sat on the floor, the Wife semi-thrown across my lap in what looked to be a desperate cry for affection she had not received in months. She had Sisters, I knew, but the closeness of her body and her posture, all-giving, was not something purely amical. This touch of hers reminded me of something else; of Maude and Pa, perhaps, curled into one-another on the rare frigid evenings of my first hundred years, whispering and touching; of Pit and his first glance at me, bold and rosy.
“They… they’re like him.”
I had heard the whisperings and the rumours circulating regarding the supposed ‘him’ she spoke of long before I ever considered heading up to the Citadel. The tales that returned from the Fury Road had all been stained with violence and carnage, save one, one that all the young husbandless mothers told me while I helped them deliver their pups. The Wife hurt Joe, not by killing him, but by loving the war fodder he didn’t mind losing. A War Boy, they had claimed, had traitored the Immortan after the Wife had opened herself to him. He had died for her, sent to the Mother before her very eyes. The Wife and her Boy, they breathed in awe. Isn’t that just a dream?
My jaw tightened. “No,” I said, thinking of Two-Limbed-Slit and his long hair and bushy beard and fucked face. There was no romance, in him, no Before Time love-ballads. “They aren’t. Not anymore.”
The Wife and I sat there until she soothed herself enough to remove herself from me and sit at my side instead of on my thighs, her slim hand shamefully folded across her eyes. It was hard to see the expression she was making past all her glorious hair, but I figured it would be an ugly cross between embarrassment and utter exhaustion.
Step Two: Make sure the mother’s alright. Offer her something to eat or drink, if you have any. She needs to keep her energy up. I had nothing to give the Wife of my own, not even a pretty scrap of metal, and I doubted that she wanted my paints. Her fire-hair was impressive enough. She wasn’t in any need of another colour to make her stand out, to make her strong.
She leaned back against a wall, and I followed. Mother almighty, I was exhausted. It reminded me of my scuffle with Flint and his mate, true War Boys, all painted up and strong. Flint, the softest of the pair, the one who dared cry before an outsider, had been looking for a mate named Zipper, and after beating me near-death, had filled me with such sleepiness that I had preferred death to living without rest.
I had never met a Zipper, while I was working with the Boys, and none of them had spoken of him. Zipper had probably been in the grave long before I arrived, either due to his injuries or Organic’s neglect, long enough for his Brothers to quit mentioning his name. Poor bastard.
“…y’have t’see it,” I said, turning my head to look at the Wife, who had her arms wrapped around her knees as she blearily stared at a dying torch spitting embers up against the wall. “Smellin’ it’s only one part of the experience.”
She didn’t respond, but I knew she had heard me. It was impossible to have ignored me, in such a strained silence. I also knew, in my infinite wisdom, that she wasn’t going to stand up for shit. She was driving without checking her mirrors, that girl, too scared of finding out if she was being chased or not to glance in her rear-view.
Huffing softly, I scooted forward on my backside until I was up from against the wall and sitting across from her again, giving her nowhere else to look but right at me. I could see my distorted reflection in her clear eyes, but the sight of myself wasn’t a comfort- I turned my gaze to the tip of her nose instead, close enough for her not to notice I had glanced away but making me a shit-tone more comfortable.
Reaching out to her, I pulled on the edge of her thick cape, and though her glare was near-humorous (so un-ferocious, for a grown woman), it did not waver from my scarred face.
“If y’think I’m goin’ t’ let those Boys die because y’can’t buck up and face the site of ‘em, y’have another thing comin’,” I said, keeping my tone cool before the Wife. She was upset enough, but I could only coddle her for so long.
“Shut up,” she snapped, irritably shoving at the hand that was holding her cloak with surprising aggression. “You don’t know shit.”
“Oh-ho, big words, Wife!” I sneered, tugging up my skirts and sticking my bare foot out for her to see, only inches from her face. It had been stained a deep brown, and if the smell didn’t give her an idea of what had coloured my skin, then the infected soles of my feet might. “I don’t know shit?! I’ve been livin’ in shit!”
The Wife screeched and shoved that away, too, gritting her pearly teeth. Seeing her riled only made her more stunning, and I fucking hated it.
“You could have gone!” she shouted, lips curling with disdain. “I didn’t want you to work with them! I told you it wasn’t right for you!”
“But y’still left me there!” I roared. “Y’couldn’t even send someone t’get me! Y’just hoped I would croak like the rest of them! Fuckin’ bitch, y’stuck every War Boy who wasn’t pretty-lookin’ enough t’get up skirts in the Road War in there, closed your eyes, and chose to forget!”
“I did not forget!”
The soft flesh of her hands grew sharp upon the collision of her knuckles with my cheek- a backhanded slap, that crazy smeg. I would have been impressed, if I didn’t taste blood in my mouth. My gums were so sore and sensitive from my tooth loss that any amount of sudden pressure could get me bleeding out like a freshly caught dune snake.
I spat out the crimson stuff on the ground beside us, and the Wife instantly recoiled, hands returning to their previously shaky state as she folded herself against the wall, and our collective panting filled the small space between us. Step Three: Count the time between the mother’s contractions. If she needs to squeeze your hand, then let her.
“Y’have a mean slap,” I rasped, touching my swollen cheek and wincing when my exposed nerves wailed with discomfort. “That’s useful, ‘round those Boys. They need a firm touch.”
The Wife still hesitated around me, uncomfortable looking down at the room she had avoided for hundreds of days. The girl had tossed those men into a bonfire, praying they’d turn to ash, but hadn’t come back to check if they were still burning or not.
I looked at the door with her, and spotted some shuffling from behind it; those Boys had heard our fighting and were looking out, either for entertainment or to assure I wasn’t dead. Either way, I felt a little flattered.
I knew she would never see that room. I just damn knew. Even if I dragged her there by the toes and threw her inside, she would keep her eyes shut until she couldn’t bare it any longer. She wanted to stay blind, but I would have to lift the mask off of her eyes eventually, no matter how hard she thrashed and screamed.
“…Ace?” I called, and the movement behind the door ceased instantly, as did the Wife’s breathing.
The door creaked under the weight of a careful hand, and I saw the end of a nose and chin poke out the doorway, before gliding back into the dark room. The flood of light, no matter how minor, probably hurt Ace’s old eyes, poor thing. The Wife got up behind me, panicky, but before she could move too far, I grabbed her wrist and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
Step Four: When the pup’s coming, pull it out as quickly as you can, like ripping off a wet bandage from a wound. No use stalling what’s bound to happen anyways.
Just as I was about to call for him again, Ace emerged from the dark, squinting hard through his facial bandages as he shuffled towards us. I wasn’t sure if he recognized the Wife, but she sure recognized him; I could feel her muscles flexing hard as she attempted to wriggle from my grasp, but I was unrelenting.
Ace stood between us as confidently as a half-blind man could, arms folded across his chest and glassy eyes staring daggers into the Wife.
“I’m sorry,” The Wife blurted out, and Ace’s wrinkled face coiled with confusion as he looked her up and down.
“Are you?” he asked mildly, gesturing to me on the ground with two fingers, almost as if he were holding a mock gun. I had never seen Ace posture, but if I had to guess how he would do it, it would be like this. Sniffling softly, as if he were smelling her fear on the air, Ace cocked his head back towards the door and turned on his heel.
He was fucking kami-crazy, that old shit. He was out. He could have run, made a break for it. I shook my head as I got up, still holding the Wife, though she was much more responsive to Ace’s orders and walked willingly alongside me now.
The Boys were leaning eagerly out the door by the time we reached the spot, reaching out for me and Ace to give them a hand, muttering beneath their breath and gazing down the hall in disbelief. The sight of them in proper light made me choke on my own gob.
Had they always been so thin? Their ribs pitifully clung to their skin as they eased their way out on their bellies, not waiting for the permission of the Wife. Forty years a slave for one moment of freedom, I supposed. At the back of the ground, Two-Limbed-Slit was shoving at the crowd and scooting forward on his backside towards the light. I would have offered to help, but his hand looked rough and I had already tasted enough blood for one day.
Piled one on top of the other like the first day I had seen them, the limbless and the ill clambered eagerly into the hall, coughing the humid moisture of the ward from their lungs and breathing in the crisp, dry air they were all too familiar with. As they shuffle by, some clasped their hands, fingers out, like I had seen Pit do when he had first seen the Wife. I smiled when they made their little symbol at me. I liked it.
“’Bout time you let us out,” Two-Limbed-Slit grumbled, and I couldn’t help but chuckle helplessly. Son of a smeg-faced whore.
I had not released my hold on the Wife yet, but her surprising stillness made me worried. She was just staring at them all, saying nothing, doing nothing. She watched as they found respective spots, leaning back against the hall’s walls and chatting eagerly amongst themselves. She watched Two-Limbed-Slit punch one of his Brothers in the arm for getting into his lounging space. She watched Ace join them, all wrinkles and scars, and plop down in the dirt with what was either the tiniest of smiles or the largest of cringes. With such a stench in the air, it was hard to tell.
The Wife gently removed my fingers from her wrist and mindlessly shut the door, never looking in. After seeing my Boys, I don’t even think she needed to. With great purpose and a strange maturity I had only seen her wear but once before, she nodded deeply at me and adjusted her cloak. She was not pleased, not at all. She hated every second of her time there.
And yet, she still stayed.
“Tomorrow,” she said, moving to plug her nose with the edge of her cape, “we’ll shave them all.”
I bowed my head and beamed, Ace-style.
Perhaps the Wife could handle the stench, after all.
Chapter 16: Chapter 15
Rush treats her Boys to a taste of her new blade.
The first true weapon and tool I had ever received as a child was a tiny switchblade that Pa had traded for next to nothing in Gastown. Gifts were few and far between, in the Wasteland, so upon his return from his bartering trip, I was ecstatic to receive the miniscule knife, if only to congratulate me for having lived as long as I had. The present had come but half-a-hundred days after Jericho’s assault on me, and though I wishfully convinced myself that the weapon had nothing to do with the events of that morning, I was too wise at that age to completely ignore the truth.
Following the gifting of the switchblade, I did not spend a day without something sharp strapped to my hip. Jericho grew weary of me as I flashed my metal more often in public, and decidedly stalked away from me when I sent my most intense of childish glares in his direction. Pa had surely given him a talking-over, and with Maude beginning to pull me out from under the burning scrutiny of the sun to watch over mothers and pups, he turned from me and looked towards other girls for entertainment. He would not risk another verbal beating from the Mercedes Man, especially not when he could risk getting sliced in the process.
The cord-cutting blade became my next prized knife, and I prided myself in the silly names I gave it. Life-Giver, Mother-Maker, Joy-Bringer, all completely inappropriate for something that could easily do much more harm than good, if I willed it to do so. Maude beamed when she saw me wield it, through screaming and bloodshed, and when I had done a satisfactory job she would always spend the remainder of the evening coming through my tangles of hair as a painful reward.
There was no returning back to life before the blade. I did not know how I would manage without my knife, when Organic stripped me of it, and I felt as if I were in constant state of nudity without it. I had to accept it had probably been traded to Gastown bums for fume by Organic’s hand, but I could at least comfort myself in the imaginary thought that my cord-cutting blade might be someone’s first knife.
When the time came to shave my Boys, who were replenished with energy once they had been moved to the Wife’s side of the Blood Shed, I could not believe the nurses were trusting me with a razor so soon after my narrow escape from the clutches of a moist, illness-ridden death. However, after properly staring at them, I noticed their mannerisms around my Boys- quick and precise, but flighty. They did what they had to do to make sure they didn’t succumb completely, but refused to do much else than that. I could not really find it in myself to be mad with them, because despite their fear, they still performed their roles more effectively in one day than the Organic had done in over two-hundred.
The Boys still had to share beds in order to have enough room to fit them all in the Blood Shed, but I did not once hear them complain. They ate until their stomachs overflowed and they spilled sick from their mouths, that day, sick that I was more than happy to scrub off of the floor. Some of them even dared to smile at me and offer me words of encouragement. Sister done pulled us from the depths! Sister helped us touch the sun!
They muttered eagerly at me when it came their turn for a shave, and even though I might have originally struggled not to nick them (Ace officially was sporting a new, bleeding cut half the length of my smallest fingers on his chin from my clumsy fingers), they made a point to stay still and praise me when I managed to cut the majority of their hair away. One by one, going down their line of cots, I raked away at their tousled, matted hair, and collected what I could in a bucket provided for me by the Wife, who all the while was sitting quietly in the corner of the room and observing with an expression of decided bitterness.
The Wife seemed to be able to handle the sight of my Boys hairy and ragged, but as they lost their hair and became soft-faced again, she grew more and more irritable and emotional, distracting herself from the scene at hand by checking on her other wretch patients. It didn’t help that my Boys thought absolutely nothing of the Wife, sending looks her way when she glanced in their direction or making a point to spit at her when she came too close. Like my first days in the ward, they wanted to test the make of her, see if she was to be trusted at all or if she would crack under the pressure of being surrounded by them. From what I had seen so far, the Wife would not last more than a week around them. She had given them freedom from the ward, but that did not mean she wanted anything else to do with them, like trapping a fly and letting it loose outside your tent flaps instead of crushing it.
When I reached Two-Limbed-Slit, the Wife had had enough, and escaped to the hall for a moment of peace. Two-Limbed-Slit grunted as I began working at his hair, squatted beside him and watching him apathetically watch the Wife leave the room. Two-Limbed-Slit’s condition had somewhat improved; his face had stopped oozing completely, and though the stump of his leg and his missing hand still gave him the occasional ache, the burns he had sustained on the left half of his body were becoming a solid pink colour, which was a good sign, I think.
Truly, I wish I could help them more. I could not tell if my stitches were tight enough or if my bandages were holding properly. The nurses remained too frightened to intervene, and Organic, cunt that he was, was still too broken to do anything more than whimper. Fuck him, fuck the nurses. Fucking rusted, the lot of them. The Wife was to blame, too. She had let them out, but here I was, the only one doing anything to assure my Boys still stayed alive.
Two-Limbed-Slit yowled when I pulled too hard on a knot in his hair with the edge of my blade, and I didn’t have enough time to react before he gave me a hard shove in the stomach, knocking me on my ass and toppling me into another Boy’s lap. Mother, was I tired of him.
“Fuck, wretch, can you be any less mediocre?!” Two-Limbed-Slit snarled, his hand grabbing his aching scalp.
“Screw you, Two-Limb! I don’t have t’shave none o’ you!” I barked, and the Boy I had fallen into helped me up with a push of his hand on my lower back.
“Quit your posturin’, mate, she ain’t got no gearstick to compare to yours,” the Boy at my back snapped, and I thanked him with a look, though I knew he would never receive it.
Slit’s cot-neighbour had been different from the other shaves, being one of the only blondes in the group, all yellow-haired like a newborn. He was pretty-featured, too, nothing like Two-Limbed-Slit’s wrecked face. Besides the pair of scars that sliced his face in four, one down the middle of his face up-and-down and another going left-to-right, he almost looked normal. He had lost his eyes in the war, and I had sewn his lids shut by Organic’s request, to keep infection out, or something of the sort. He had no chance, working as a Boy again.
Two-Limbed-Slit sneered a smile at me and puffed. “That’s why you’ve been so pissy ‘round me, isn’t it? Can’t resist the thought of me fuckin’ you raw with my shiny gearstick, scared of missin’ out.”
I stood slowly and patted the blind Boy on the shoulder as I moved to where I had been, kneeled beside Two-Limbed-Slit and trying desperately not to lose a finger with his constant shifting.
“You’ve already been fuckin’ me raw for days, Two-Limb,” I grumbled, and continued to saw the blade back and forth against his tangle of hair. So neglectful of themselves, these War Boys, too busy focused on others to worry much about what happened to them. “I ain’t been missin’ shit.”
“After my bite, you’ve just been lookin’ for another way t’get close. Come a little closer and I’ll bite you somewhere shine, wretch.”
My shoulders locked as he taunted me, and I was glad I was standing behind him. Rusted bag of nuts, he knew exactly how to get under my skin.
The scent of my own sweat reached my nostrils, and suddenly, the grime between my fingers and the oily weight of my hair made every movement feel over-greased. I had been unused to the humidity of the ward, and now that I was back in the relative dryness of the Blood Shed, I couldn’t handle the sleek moisture of my own body. Back with Maude, we could take sand baths, wipe ourselves clean of the muck on us in the comfort of our tent. Around those Boys, cleanings were rare, for both they and I. Organic had the opportunity to get clean, thanks to his frequent visits to the outside. We had none.
I shaved Two-Limbed-Slit as quickly as I could, using all the strength in my hands to keep his head steady, clasping his jaw between my fingers. When he moved or complained, I threatened him by inching my fingertips close to his stitches, which shut him up but did not make him scream as I might have thought. In theory, he was probably in a lifetime of pain. I couldn’t wrap my head around how he was managing to remain so cocky and unflinching despite the anguish I knew he was most probably in. It was like mothers with their pups- they could coo and nuzzle and comfort their newborns while bleeding out, all happy-faced and glowing.
Two-Limbed-Slit furrowed his brows when I paused to stare at him, knife lingering just below the horrific cut on his cheek. Bastard. I was a pup, to him. The thought of it made me gag.
“You’re done,” I said, smacking him hard on his good cheek and gathering his hair from the floor. I was eager to get away from him.
“Like what you see?” he said, straining his neck to show me all angles of his jaw.
“As much as I like chewin’ on snake bones,” I said, tucking the blade away into my waistband without even looking at him. He was a monstrosity, whether he had a beard or not, and I did not need to confirm my thoughts.
Two-Limbed-Slit thundered with discontent when I walked away from him; I could tell as much, because I heard his once-blonde Brother begin to bark at him after receiving a punch to the arm for ‘being too soft ‘round the wretch’. Doctoring-business was taking his pup away from him, and someone needed to be punished for it when I could not be.
I set the bucket of hair down by the entrance to the Blood Shed, where the Wife was lingering, watching me intently. Her bitterness from earlier had melted into something softer, perhaps when she saw me scrubbing at my own dirty hands.
“Who is he?” she asked as I slumped to the cool floor, away from the Boys and out of view, where they could not see my exhaustion. Two-Limbed Slit could take everything out of me, if he tried, and he just had.
“Don’t matter,” I said, gently untying my hair wrap; when the pressure was released from my head, a few strands of dark hair fell into my lap. Without hesitation, I put those in the bucket, too. “A smeg with too much energy, is all.”
The Wife placed her hand on the top of my head, but I pulled away before she could put her fingers in my hair. Didn’t want to lose any more of the stuff.
“He pushed you,” she said, dumbfounded. “He pushed you hard and you didn’t do anything.”
“I don’t want t’get bit!” I exclaimed with a roll of my eyes. “He’s a nasty thing, but I can’t risk more oozin’ and bleedin’ round here. The Boys got t’stay happy if I want t’stay breathin’.”
The Wife made a complicated expression, one of relation. I imagined Joe hadn’t been too dissimilar from his angry Sons. I wondered how long it would take me until I, too, began to be unable to look at their bald heads and clean faces. It was only a matter of time.
“They’ll need paint, eventually,” I said, picking at the callouses that were beginning to form on the tips of my fingers. “Paint and fresh clothes.”
“They don’t need paint,” the Wife insisted, but I brushed her off with a wave of my hand. They would need paint, unless I wanted to end up like Organic, punished for my neglect.
“It’ll be good for ‘em,” I decided, brushing a loose strand of hair from my eyes. That, too, fell from my scalp and fluttered to the floor.
Perhaps I would soon be needing a shave, too.
Chapter 17: Chapter 16
Rush runs for the first time in months.
Gosh, sorry for making all of you wait so long. I am very rust. Finals came at me fast, and I just started a new project with your friendly neighborhood AO3 legend, Weirdness_Unlimited. Hopefully this more dramatic chapter makes up for it.
Before I could spout much of anything beyond ‘Pa’ and ‘Mumma’ from my greedy gullet, I had contracted something nasty Maude called dog-cough. She had told me that, for a handful of nights, I was wheezing and whistling in my lungs and couldn’t catch my breath, barking my innards out and acting like I had caught something cancerous. Most pups got it, but most died from it, too. Ugly, fatal thing, dog-cough was. I had been called to treat many pups for it, but I could never do much.
I was stuck to Maude’s nipple for hours on end, during those few days, if only to soothe my tears and give myself something for me to concentrate my frustrations into. Though she had then been dry of milk, she didn’t mind my suckling. Kept me quiet, she said, but I knew that it was truly because she thought I might croak and wanted an excuse to keep me close.
I survived the dog-cough’s choking grip on me eventually, and Maude often told me that she was shocked I came out of it so well, that I was much too skinny a pup, too malnourished for life. She said that one of the Mother’s eyes were on me, during that time, and prayed in thanks constantly after that point for allowing me to live. To this day, if I could not find something to pray about in my evenings, I thanked the Mother for the breath in my healed lungs. Life was no luxury, but it was better than the unknown that came hand and hand with croaking.
After I had gotten sick, no matter how many ill little ones I was around, the dog-cough’s deathlike breath had never rolled across me again. It was immunity, whatever that meant, that’s what Ma called it. I prided myself in the fact that I couldn’t seem to be killed in my early years, and in my innocence I often found myself wondering if the so-called immortal god, up on the Citadel balcony, had ever gotten dog-cough. I liked to think that it could still snatch him up one day.
Jericho came down on me like a needle of lightning later, when I had shot up like a car on hydraulic lifts and was beginning to get prettier. I had nightmares for hundreds of days afterwards, and Maude often had to keep me from doing drastic things, like slicing at my own skin as well-deserved punishment for making my Pa’s existence so hellish. Maude reminded me of my time with the barking cough when I’d wake up at night screaming and squirming, pulling the sharps I had clenched between my fingers away and kissing my hands.
It’s just like when you were sick, baby- dog-cough got you once, can’t get you again. Just got to survive the first time, and you’ll be lovely forever.
Ace quickly noticed my hair loss. It was getting hard to hide, because with nothing for my hair wrap to grip onto any longer, I had to resort to wearing it across my forehead, where my pale skull meat was exposed. It was all coming out on the right side of my head entirely, lovely long black strands I had grown for years fluttering to the ground, a snake’s shed skin dancing in the breeze. Having his worried old eyes on me gave me an excuse to work harder and more efficiently- I was changing bandages and scrubbing floors and dolling out food like a loon, trying to find any excuse for him and his Boys to leave me be, to get them to stop whispering about my condition when they thought I was asleep, to convince the group to quit offering me mouthfuls of their rations like I was some picky pup who didn’t want a feed. Even Two-Limb’s teasing had gradually died, his corner of the ward becoming more and more quiet as the days passed. He kept giving me these looks, with those ugly eyes, like he was trying to decide what to make of my state. It drove me crazy.
When I wasn’t working, I sat on the floor and went through the bucket of hairs I had collected from their shaves, and plucked out the longest ones I could find before discarding the rest of the matted clumps of fur, and wove them around my knuckles to make one large loop of singular hairs before tying the ends of that great loop altogether. I would never run out of thread, now. I kept the growing ring of multicolored hair around my wrist, where no one could take it. Had to keep myself and my things under control, with these Boys.
The Wife often came around to sit with me, when all my Boys were asleep and I was still up by lamplight, working hard to keep my hands busy. She always offered to help me with whatever I was doing, whether it be scrubbing bandages or just praying quietly, but I knew it was all Citadel formality. It was just a polite way of offering me an explanation as towhy she insisted on lingering beside me, stroking my head and trying to draw a smile out of me by offering me extra bites of lizard or desert mouse.
On the night when the final clump of hair on the right side of my skull fell out, around day 290 or so, though I had long run out of space on my arms to scar up, Ace had stayed awake with me while I picked dried, hard skin off the tips of my fingers. My nails were getting long. They’d need to be cut. Didn’t know when I would need to get catching again.
Ace caught my hands just as I was raising my digits to my teeth, and even though I huffed and pulled at his tightened grip, he refused to let go. His old face looked so tired. I wondered how he hadn’t fallen asleep already.
“Gone work-loony, you have,” he said, leaning in close to get a better look at my balding head. “Got t’stop sometime, girly. You’ve been runnin’ your engine too long and its gettin’ hot real fast. Killin’ yourself quick, the way you’re doing things.”
“I ain’t no engine. Not one o’your cars. I don’t get hot,” I snapped, wriggling my fingers until he loosened his hold.
To my great aggravation, Ace barked out a dismissive laugh and palmed the naked side of my head.
“You’re right! Not hot, but cold!” he insisted, blowing cool air at the bare skin and delighting in the shiver I couldn’t help but accept.
I did not laugh with him. I could not bear to. I jerked my head aside and covered the bald spot he had touched, which effectively made his amusement die with a settling of his wrinkled face.
We sat there, the two of us, the rumble of snores seeming like the nearing thunder of the most passive storm in history as we then knew it. My broken teeth ached in my mouth. I had never gotten them pulled, and my cheeks were swollen because of the lingering fragments that still clung to my gums.
I spat up blood most of the time. It was hard for me to work. It was hard for me to sleep. It was hard for me to live.
“Why did you come here?”
I looked up at Ace as he spoke, and the expression he wore struck me with completely terror: with his eyes looking so grave and his face, so attentive, he could nearly pass as the kin of my father. His metallic tone made me swallow, and I cringed at the taste of something sour in my own mouth.
“…’cause I needed to,” I said, dropping the hand that was clinging to the cold skin of my head.
He shook his head at me. Wrong? I wasn’t wrong! I set my shoulders when he made a low, grumbling noise in his chest.
“Why?” His tone was careful, but I could tell he wouldn’t let me sleep before he got an answer. A tone Maude would often use when she was trying to work something out of me that I didn’t particularly want to tell her. Ace must have been a parent, at one time, because no man of his age without children could learn to speak the way he did.
“It don’t matter,” I huffed, feeling my heart strain behind my ribs.
“If it don’t matter, then y’have no reason t’be here.”
Looking back on that moment, I wonder if Ace knew what his words would do to me. He must have. He had lived too long to still speak carelessly.
He knew I was lost. He knew I hadn’t a clue why I was breaking my back over a small group of war veterans who probably would have rather died than returned home with injuries so horrific and attitudes so soured under the shadow of tyranny that they were kept locked away from the rest of the world like lepers.
Why had I ever left? What did Maude see in this place? Her lofty idea of a good future for me was based off of rumour. The great legend of the Immortan Joe was dead, and yet, his lies still remained. I was a midwife working like a dog to save the pups of a dead man, and I never even needed to oil my hands. What the fuck was I doing?
Ace took my wrist in his hand. His fingers and palms were so large that they could fully wrap around the circumference of tiny forearm. He squeezed, hard, and that made tears spill from my eyes. My throat grew tight with his grip, and my breathing grew shallow. He must have seen this before. He was too stone-faced for this to be much of a shock to his system.
“Stop wastin’ that cola, girlie!” he barked, shoving his knuckles against my face and scrubbing roughly at the damp skin. “You’re still writhin’, ain’t you?!”
“I don’t know!” I bellowed, and breath filled the emptiness in me like blood filled a wound.
The Boys around me must have woken, because the snoring had stopped, and I could feel the fire of their eyes in my skin. Their whispers rose with my angered sobs. My hands, clenched over my eyes in fists, were applying so much pressure to my eyelids that I could see stars swarming in my vision. I had not seen the stars in so many days.
I’m not sure how long I sat there for, with Ace holding me and squeezing until I was sure he had left his fingerprints on me. This wasn’t aggression. I knew so. I had seen what he could do to someone, if in the right mindset. He could have snapped my arm or done much worse if he had been irritated with me.
No, he sat there. We sat there. The Boys watched as my sobs silenced themselves and all was left of my sorrow was the violent jerking of my shoulders and the bob of my spine through my tunic. My urge to pray was strong, but I knew the Mother wouldn’t listen to a word I had to say in such a dark, dank place.
“She need a mechanic?”
Two-Limb’s voice was a screech in the silence, one that made me look up at him. Up in his cot, he looked pissed off for being woken, rubbing his bad eye, as if something besides his cataracts were clouding his vision. He wasn’t even looking at me. He was staring at Ace, like I was some screeching motor and he wouldn’t get his foot off the gas.
I don’t know, smeg, do you need a wrench down the throat?! I’ll be happy to find one for you!
No words came out. As I bared my bloodied teeth to speak, the rattling boom sounded from the hall leading outside the Blood Shed and stole the breath from my lungs, and the earth-shaking banging noise continued sounding in a steady, eerie beat. The heartbeat of the Citadel. Someone was playing the war drums.
Those who were not asleep around me rose from their deathlike sleeps and instantly got agitated, sitting up on their elbows and blearily looking about, reaching for their waists, where their tool belts used to be. Those who could stand helped themselves to their feet and began baring their teeth, shouting loudly over the deafening noise and trying to make sense of what was going on. Even the blind man, the one with the crossed-face, was feeling around his cot and attempting to grab someone’s hand, a call for attention and clarification.
Ace’s hold on me got impossibly tighter. I squeaked and pried his fingers off of me, but he too had forgotten about my presence. The War Boys seemed as if they were in a trance at the sounds of war, and it was terrifying. Nurses were swarming in from outside in an attempt to calm the crowd, but they hissed and pushed and yelled obscenities over the growing noise. It didn’t take long for the room to be absolutely packed with people, like snakes in a mating ball, writhing and flicking about.
Whips of red embers dancing in the tightening room caught my attention, and my body instantly began shoving past elbows and torsos in order to follow the splattering of colour. I was shoved and knocked down a handful of times, but I was lucky enough to stumble upon the Wife after a few knocks to the temples.
The Wife looked horrible, sleepless and grey, like a corpse, but upon seeing me she rejoiced and caught me tight in her embrace. She screamed something at me, a long sentence as she began leading me away.
I fought her as she dragged me through the crowd, grabbing at my Boys’ arms and trousers, trying to get their attention. Some of them looked and held onto me; others snarled and shoved me away by the forehead. I still reached for them anyways.
I had dragged these Boys from the depths. I couldn’t let them die. I just needed a few more days. A few more days and we’d all be out under starlight again.
The sickening, explosive sounds of gunshots made the room roar, and though I didn’t hear our screams, I knew both the Wife and I had wailed at the sound. I tried to pull away again, but the Wife had now dug her nails into the bruises Ace had left behind and was half-dragging me at this point. My tears were still rolling fast and warm.
In my blurry vision, I saw Two-Limb trying desperately to get up on his good leg with the help of the wall. His mouth was agape, his scars twisting bitterly with the strain as he used every muscle in him to pull himself up from the rocky floor. Our eyes met as I was dragged into the hall.
Go, he said soundlessly, all teeth and blood from where he had popped my hair-stiches, pointing with his stump-hand at the hall. If the Wife wasn’t running with me, I would have run to him, instead. Mother, I didn’t want to die this way. I had survived dog-cough once, why was I being forced to survive again?
As the Wife and I dashed down the hall, I managed to regain my hearing enough for me to hear our feet padding on the floors. The drums were still incessant in their rhythmic pounding, but with the Boys’ screaming out of my ears, I could make out what I was hearing again.
“What in the fuck—what’s happening?” I demanded, wiping my eyes with my free hand. My bare feet were getting sliced and pounded on the raw rock floors. I hadn’t run in so long, and these were not the sands of my childhood.
The Wife turned to me and attempted to speak, but another nearby gunshot masked the sounds escaping her. I only caught one word on her lips.
Chapter 18: Chapter 17
Trouble is further from the gunshots than Rush might think.
Pa’s knowledge was not something that was difficult to rival, though I could never fault him for his lack of interest in learning such skills as reading the Before-Time language. He was raised on the work of the body, and not the mind, wrestling for the last piece of meat and hauling valuable scrap on his burnt back. All he had ever known was that which his parents had taught him, and those things had been few: Pa could only ever hold interesting conversation regarding automobiles and war.
I had grown up around the idea of chaos, a concept that was married to the violence of war and had been screwing it gently for centuries. However, when being pulled through the stone walls of the Citadel’s gut, hearing screams but not seeing their owners, I knew I was experiencing something else completely. No wretch had ever been able to lose themselves to anger on such an impressive scale.
Gunshots wailed around us in time to the near-musical pounding of boots against dusty rock. A metallic scent was rapidly filling the air, and though my eyes had still not betrayed me in the relative dark, they were beginning to ache and itch from a thin film of sandy fog that was rising constantly from the Wife’s break-neck speed. Her squeezing had not let up for a moment as she forced me down narrow hallways that were so stuffy with the odor of sweat that I was forced to hold my breath. Pain shot up my spine from the base of my heels. My shoulders and arms clipped the narrow corners of every rocky doorway we were forced to traverse to avoid the conflict, conflict that was surely out there somewhere and yet too treacherously close for the Wife to risk facing. Gunshots had deafened me- I had reached a point where I could hear nothing but a sharp ringing in my own inner ear.
Stop, I attempted to shout, all in vain because I was sure the Wife would not obey me, even if her grey bits had not been rattled by the trembling of the Citadel’s very bones beneath us. No more of this. Please. When she was unresponsive to my begging, I squeezed my eyes shut and stumbled along with nothing left but the flame-haired woman to guide me. The air was sour and tasted like ash, stagnant as difficult to swallow, like muddy aqua-cola. Moving through this putrid air reminded me of childhood, and the way my nails would gather muddy sand while I was digging up the liquid drug that the Immortan often warned us was to be tasted with caution. Addiction could be a dangerous thing.
I always thought the Immortan was a fucking crock. If he didn’t want us to get addicted to the cola, then why did he hand it out in a way that forced us to fight and kill over it? He was a sadist, at the very best. I was so very glad to know he was dead after I had gotten over my fear of what (or rather, who) was yet to come.
The Wife’s hand moved from my arm to my shoulder as our pace slowed, and though the rumbling of drums was still present beneath my soles, I had enough of a survival instinct left to open my eyes.
The Wife had taken me to a long, wide room, bursting from wall to ceiling with was looked to be pots stuffed to the brim with green paper. The pots, attached to chains and being rotated in a hypnotic rolling motion, moved from the floor towards the ceiling on guided tracks as they were sprinkled with aqua-cola from somewhere above our heads. I craned my head to look upwards: the rows of green starbursts rose up, up, up, filling my vision with the rare colour. Why so much green paper? And why so much wasted aqua-cola?
I could not stare for long. At the end of the room was a woman as small as me, and just as dark, too, waiting anxiously by an open circular door and waving the Wife over with her entire arm, snarling something at her before her eyes landed on me; her dark eyebrows quirked and she asked me something. Her tense shoulders and the subtle shake of her head as she looked between me and the Wife, as well as the warm funk of her breath washing across my face, was worrying, but the Wife simply shook my shoulders a little, pointed at my naked skull meat and moved us along. I looked over my shoulder long enough to see the tiny woman use all her strength to shut the heavy, circular door. Its booming slam was the first sound that had reached my ears since the Blood Shed.
At that moment, I might have believed I had passed on, because after the door closed behind us, white filled my vision. However, I knew I could not be dead, because every step I took towards the mass of pale, wriggling matter was agony. As the Wife and I approached, our pace now slowed to a walk and our lungs burning from the run, my weary mind concentrated and wailed at the sight that then had me wishing I had gone to the Mother.
Swarming around my legs were children, all within their first few hundred days, fussing and crying and attempting to find any lick of comfort in a sea of strangers. Their white paint, so similar to the stuff I had begged the Wife to allow me to slather on my patients, made their status as War Pups clear as a cloudless day. Some clung to my skirts the moment they laid their watery eyes on me; others reached their pudgy hands up into my sightlines, urgently asking to be held.
I didn’t like grown pups. Newborns were easier than this. I sat down on the floor anyways.
I was swarmed by at least six of them, one on either of my thighs and the rest huddled around me, desperate for an arm to cling to as they babbled helplessly, unintelligible through their sobbing. Like the men I had raised up from ash all these months, all these little things truly wished for was for someone to assure them that they were going to live.
I looked up at the Wife. She was attempting to separate two older pups, who seemed to be clawing and spitting profanity at one-another in such a moment of intense stress, but her eyes were still on me.
I hated her blues. After she had opened up to me, tears spilling from those very blues like Before-Time rainfall, I convinced myself that forgiveness was a possibility. She had tried to separate my Boys from me once, and I had chalked it up to being a tactic of emotional and mental protection on her part, but she had done it again. She couldn’t even allow me to get them somewhere safe. She was so infatuated with the idea of saving someone who seemed important that she forgot the suffering of the rest.
“So y’let the children stay, did you?” I asked, and she looked down at me despite the noise. “Because they need help? Because they’re vulnerable? And the sick ones we left behind? What of them?”
She furrowed her brows, finally separating the boys with a mild glare. She saved her more infuriated expression for the likes of me, the wretch-waste who had demanded she stay and work. She had then said that she loved those boys, but now, I was sure those were all pretty words meant to keep me far away from them.
“They’re men. They can handle themselves.”
I cannot recall the noise I made or the huff I released or the slap I gave the floor with my palms, but the little ones around me scrambled and whined, jumping from their spots in my lap instantly. I got to my feet in a blinded rage and swayed as she furrowed her brows at me, as if she were feigning confusion at my display of anger. Stupid fucking whore!
I lunged at her before I had a chance to calm myself, tackling her middle and ramming her body into the ground as I had seen Ace do to the Organic Mechanic. My nails were in her face before she even had the chance to scream. Long nails, bad for mothers, and even worse for Wives.
Pups around us began wailing, some with terror and others with the burst of adrenaline that often accompanied witnessing a fight. I instinctively stuck my nails as deep into her cheek as possible and pulled backwards, though that did nothing but wrench back the first few layers of skin of her face and leave her bleeding bucketfuls of watery red body-ochre.
“They were babies! They were only babies!” I roared, and out of me poured the rage of a past I had attempted to stifle through kindness. I seemed to have forgotten that I was a desert creature with less worth that the lead of a bullet, and rage is not easy to rip from the jaws of such a wild creature.
Her palm flew and forced my lower jaw upwards, forcing my teeth into my tongue. “Who killed the world?!” she demanded through the saliva and snot. “They ravaged and raped everything in sight for the sake of glory!”
My fists curled, and I bellowed as I punched the Wife in the eye. Her head slamming back against the rock while her own nails pulled at the bony meat of my hips pumped me full of guzzoline that I hadn’t even realized I was lacking.
“They did what they did for him, thoughtless cunt! That was all they knew!” My words were punctuated by a spray of blood that was pouring from my bitten tongue. I painted her pale face and made it as red as her hair, crimson on crimson like a fire at sunset.
I jammed my dirtied fingers into her mouth despite her gnashing teeth and forced them down her gullet in an attempt to yank the back of her tongue from her lips, to silence her ignorance once and for all, to rip the face from the woman who had insisted I trust her and taken everything from me in the same span of time.
“Give them back t’me!” I sobbed, her teeth and digits working hard to dispel my prying hand from between her lips. I did not relent. I would not relent again. The Wife’s eyes watered and she choked around my nails, the warm stench of her vomit reaching my nostrils as we squinted into each-other’s eyes. It hurt to see her struggle, but I didn’t know what else to do. I was hurting and no one wanted to witness my misery. I pushed; she choked; I cried.
Before I could get a proper hold on the Wife’s lie-weaver, a pair of unfamiliar arms grabbed the back of my tunic and tossed me from the site of the brawl, sending me flying through the rotted air and knocked me harshly against the floor when I landed. The breath was knocked from my fragile lungs and sent me into a harsh coughing fit. I curled in on myself, expecting to be kicked or shoved, but no blow ever came.
The little woman I had met at the entrance of this place, the one who had asked me something that I could not decipher through my bad hearing, had torn me away from the Wife and was currently kneeling over her, helping her sit up with one strong arm. I laid there as she spoke to her, squeezing her close and evidently trying to pry some information out of her as the cacophony of squawking rose around us with the displeasure of the pups.
The woman who had tossed me reared her head completely and curled her upper lip back, a carnal reaction upon finding the thing that had so clearly harmed someone she had loved laying in a heap on the ground. I felt no guilt. Just longing for my dearest boys.
“Look at what you did. This shit is ridiculous!” the little woman said, though I couldn’t tell initially if she was berating me or the Wife. “She wanted to help you! Don’t you realize how sick you are?”
I sat up on an elbow when I was certain that she was addressing me. I saw myself in the tan woman dressed in leathers and rough clothes, though her evident strength was a surprise. She reminded me of the legend of my mother, somehow. Mag-Dala, shrunken and reborn.
“I’m not sick!” I barked, dragging the back of my aching hand against my bloodied mouth. “I’m horrid t’look at and I haven’t slept in days, but I ain’t no half-life!” Besides dog-cough, I had never been ill, and I would refuse to be ill again by anyone’s terms.
The little woman helped the Wife up and supported her weight on her robust body. The Wife no longer seemed upset, but contemplative. She stared at me and the sea of pups hurrying to give her a cuddling. Not a single one came to me.
“Not sick, then, but absolutely fucking manic,” she growled over the crowd before leading the Wife off towards a separate part of the enormous space, perhaps for privacy. I had not been offered privacy in a lifetime.
I curled on the cold floor and listened to distant gunshots and the accompanying whimpers of pups as the night went on, knees to my chin and blood dripping from my mouth. I had the men I had grown to love unprotected and potentially available to be slaughtered, and nearly killed the only woman that might have been able to offer me more despite their deaths. As Maude might say, I had burned my bridges trying to keep myself warm when all I ended up with was burns. I didn’t even know why anyone was rioting in such a place, where food and aqua-cola was abundant to all, by as the night silenced the sound of gunfire and the childlike whines around me, I could not find it in me to care.
I had never been more willing to die.
Chapter 19: Chapter 18
Rush finally gets some rest.
WARNING: This chapter contains mention/description of rape. Please be careful when reading.
Normalcy was a relative thing in a place as destroyed and inherently insane as the world we lived in. I had never known much about the Before-Time, but dustings of conversation like the sand clinging to the warm air after a storm often peaked my attention. Back then, many said, aqua-cola was hardly a thing of rarity, and food was hardly ever scarce if one was born into the right conditions. Our ancestors, so spoiled in their affluence, could afford to fill enormous pits with cola and play around in them when the weather grew warm, or could waste food to their heart’s delight with the constant assurance that they would always be able to find more. Such lives seemed impossible and filled me with jealousy, but I grew out of feelings like those very quickly. I didn’t have the luxury of feeling too strongly.
Reality itself seemed to have been swept away during my time behind the large metal door. For the first time in my own short existence, I was the minority, and adult in a world of tiny children. While I was familiar in dealing with the birth of pups and their first few months, I was equally as familiar with their deaths and burials. In my entire life, I had never been surrounded by so many children at once. At the time, it had not even occurred to me that I had probably delivered the grand majority of these squirming young boys.
Watching them move about from my position on the floor was the only distraction I had from my pain. My face, because of my bitten tongue and the two festering broken teeth that still had yet to be pulled from the back of my mouth, was swollen and painful to the point of warranting teasing from the older children, who could find no other way to amuse themselves than to dare each-other to get as close to me as possible before I snapped at them and attempted to swipe at their white bellies with my nails. When they decided they had finished antagonizing me, I slept. Time became liquid, exceedingly difficult to grasp. Minutes and hours were twin, and my worry tormented me even in my dreams. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I had spent too long this way. Rotting.
I knew, no matter how much I detested admitting it, that I had been saved in one sense or another. While my Boys were weakened by injury and illness, they had enough experience and pure grit to punch their way through another day. The Wife was present enough to see the deterioration of my state. She had cradled my life in her hands and held it close when it was threatened. Yet, the thought of what I had left behind still plagued me. Why had she taken me away by force when I had demanded to stay? Why? Just because I knew the answer did not mean I had to accept it.
The Wife had only dragged me from my post, from the oncoming carnage, because of the parts I had been gifted that sat useless between my legs, parts that served as nothing else but to tempt the other breed of human to violence. If I had been as unlucky as to have been born with a shaft, then I would have surely been dead at this point. Her love for me was as trivial and random as my womanly tubes. I would have been insulted, a few hundred days ago, but I couldn’t find any more anger in me, not after beating her like I had done. She didn’t deserve my words and my fists. We had both learned what we had come to this wretched place to learn.
The Wife and the woman in leather had closed themselves off into one of the spare rooms of the overcrowded space for several hours. A few rooms a set of stairs, and an empty pit in the middle of it all that the pups delighted in jumping in and out of like insects jumped from their sandy nests. The space was shaped like a circle, a room I had heard various descriptions of from Pa during my earliest years. He would take me around the towers sometimes and point out the reflective, dome-like windows of this space. “That’s where Joe keeps his girls,” he told me, “Get any prettier and you might end up there too.”
In the beginning, it was the sheer volume of noise coming from the private room that had alarmed me. It was too raucous to understand a lick of what the Wife and the woman in leather were saying, but their aggravated tones were enough to indicate a squabble. The Wife seemed to be raising her voice quite a deal that first evening, and I could almost see her waving her arms and frizzing hair. The other woman was initially trying to be reasonable, I assumed, but eventually, she started screaming, too. There was nothing quite as disturbing as hearing two powerful women hiss without knowing the cause of the feud. After a short while, I figured that they were surely hissing about me. I felt like a pup again, needing to look over my shoulder to make sure I didn’t have a knife pointed at me.
I had only begun to feel the true horror of it all by the time the little ones in white had fallen asleep around me, huddled in groups and piles. Some lone souls mirrored me, resting alone and trying to find comfort in their own arms, rejected by their peers. The sight of them soothing themselves with their own thumbs and whimpering in the cold reminded me of my Pit, my first and favourite Boy. He was not here, in this mess, which was both a blessing and a curse. I did not want my sweet one dead, but if he was gone, at least he had memories of me at my best with him. I would hate for him to see me in such a state. I truly looked like a wretch. Almost like Jericho.
From the short hall leading to the spare private room, the woman in leather emerged wearing quite the hard expression. I would have found it comical in another setting and mocked her for it, but I was humbled in thinking that I was probably making a very similar expression back at her. She gingerly stepped over the sleeping bodies, and with nowhere else to go, I realized she was coming right at me.
She stopped a few feet from me and crouched, and even in the dark I could see her chewing on the inside of her lip as she looked me over. She was looking at me, but not in the eye, in the face. She was glaring at the swelling of my face, my bald head, my grimy condition. I couldn’t take a breath under her scrutiny.
“You have every reason in the world to be dead,” she said, and though my chest tightened at her harsh tone I did not waver. I could not do a thing, not if I wanted my Boys back.
“…I don’t want you here,” she murmured, “but my sister does. So, you’re going to stay. Get up.”
She turned before I had even started to get up, and though it was growing increasingly harder to remove myself from my semi-comfortable position on the floor, I stepped over sleeping children and followed the woman in leather to the room that I had mutely been forbidden to enter.
I took my time walking down the little hall to the Wife’s private room, because before this point, I had never seen the Before-Time so clearly. This room, empty of anyone but myself and the two other women, was filled with objects from the time before: frames that kept plush sleeping mats from the unforgiving stone, light fixtures that illuminated the room without the use of flame, and something so foreign that I had immense trouble keeping my eyes off of it, even in my troubled state. White paint had been splattered in curved symbols on the wall, symbols I did not recognize. Letters from the Before-Time language. Could these women write in the ancient tongue?
I turned away and bowed my eyes. The thought of them holding such strange new knowledge over me made my spine crawl with terror.
The Wife was sitting on one of the raised mats, straight-backed, watching me not with anger, but with concern and something else entirely. She indicated for me to sit across from her, on the other mat, but I declined with a shake of my head. I did not want to soil the antiques.
“I’m not upset with you,” she began, reaching out to me and taking my hand. She was so very soft, a state my hands surely must have once been in before I had arrived at this place.
“I beat y’senseless,” I said, dumbfounded, and to my surprise she smiled past her facial bruises.
“You aren’t well. It’s alright.” Her hand squeezed mine, but I could hear the lies in her words. No matter what the reason was, no one could ever appreciate abuse.
I pulled my hand out of hers and miserably turned to look over my shoulder, back out the hall. The gunshots had silenced themselves a while ago, it was surely safe now.
I must had squirmed or made some sort of sound, because the Wife stood and took me by the arms. “You can’t leave tonight. Soon,” she assured me, sweetly attempting to tuck my remaining hair behind my ear.
The promise of freedom only made me more agitated, and my entire core trembled with the thought of being stuck away from the men that had given my life purpose for an even longer period of time when I knew no one would take care of them. I was their mother, their Maude; they were problems that no one had the patience to deal with. I didn’t want them lonely. What if they needed something? My babes were left without their source of milk and they were damn near close to starving!
“Why not?” I demanded, wringing my useless, busy hands. “The fightin’ stopped! There’s no gunshot noises out there!”
The Wife’s face twisted, and she and the woman in leather exchanged a glance.
“Rush…” the Wife said carefully, tilting her head to assure our eyes were locked. “…Rush, they have to get rid of the bodies before we can let anyone back out.”
I pulled harshly against the Wife’s grasp, my heart ramming in my chest as I squirmed, my voice gone save a guttural whining sound that was escaping my raw throat. She hushed me and pulled me into her with as much gentility as she could, but I could clearly tell by the vicelike strength she was using to keep me folded against her chest that this embrace was only partially meant as a comfort. She was restraining me.
“Rush? Rush, you’re very sick,” she said, shuffling me to the side of the sleep mat and sitting me down.
“No,” I sobbed, my arms shooting out from around her body and my thin fingers clasping in the direction of the doorway. “I need my babies!”
“You can’t go like this,” she insisted, and her hand reached to stroke my remaining hair. I found no comfort in her touch.
Behind her, I saw the woman in leather puttering about the room, fetching what looked to be loose rags and blankets. They were preparing for my stay.
I was about to get stuck behind another door.
I screamed beyond any capabilities I had been previously known to possess. Bucking, throwing fists, biting slow fingers, wailing for Maude, for Mumma. I wanted Mumma to come help me. I needed a cuddling and a bite of lizard. Lizard always tasted fantastic on cold nights, fresh off of the fire. Pa would have to trade something wild if he wanted a full belly for all three of the family unit. I had grown so big in the past hundred days.
“We’re not going to hurt you,” the Wife said over the noise, still eerily calm. That’s what Jericho had once told me, before shoving me into the sand and shoving himself into me like I was truly nothing more than my father’s chattel.
The woman in leather came into view, holding one of the rags she had fetched in her hand. It was damp with something, and for some terrifying reason I knew it wasn’t natural. She was grimacing, but her eyes were shining with aqua-cola. Big waste. Pa hit me when I cried, still does. Nothing was worth wasting something as precious as cola, not even Jericho’s roughness. After the whole event had transpired, all he did was look me up and down and make a face at me. Have no idea what he saw in you, he said, before heading off to have a word with Jericho about damaging Maude’s goods.
“You’re going to be okay,” the woman in leather said, reaching over the Wife’s shoulder and firmly pressing a length of cloth against my mouth.
The world got soft around the edges, and as my vision darkened comfortably, I thought of Two-Limb.
Mother in her eternal kingdom, we were alike, weren’t we?
Chapter 20: Chapter 19
Rush meets an old friend.
For something as universal as the sound of silence, there were, in my experience, many forms of quiet, and none were ever perfect. They portrayed such a grand number of moods, and most were comforting. Silence on a warm summer evening, curled between Maude and Pa, was bliss that I could not always relish in. However, on the other hand, there were types of stillness’s of sound that existed that had the capacity to send cool shivers up my spine. The lack of screams that came from a mother or a pup’s mouth after a birth still sometimes keeps me from sleep.
Awakening from my forced sleep to silence was initially quite soothing, what with still being so groggy. I slipped in and out of restless sleep multiple times before my sense returned to me somewhat fully, with a slow, ugly slither that felt as if it was choking me alive. There were no comforting breaths of sleeping children around me, the type of breaths that whistled and sighed with a rhythmic comfort that was difficult to see in their grown counterparts. It was the breath of those who had nothing to worry about despite starvation and sunburns. Their loss left me with nothing to assure me of my own breath in my lungs or the pounding shyly peeking out beneath my stark ribs. All I had to remind me that I was still alive was my pain. It made the silence sour.
My cheek had somehow become more swollen in the time it had taken for the pups to be taken from the cage where we had been sat for supposed protection, and my head was absolutely screaming with a fresh pain I had not experienced since childhood, one akin to monstrous dehydration. I seemed to be living my own personal doomsday: I was alone, painful, and unable to make the difference between the real source of my discomfort and the world around me. The tickle of floating dust in my nostrils was causing my throat to tighten, a wire noose strung from Joe’s balcony; the heat was causing the upmost destruction of my grey bits, lightning-quick lead sinking into my temple without even allowing me to take a breath; the taste of blood on the inside of my lips was metallic poison, the passionate kiss of a venomous, demonic snake who refused to remove his mouth from my own.
I shook my head violently to clear my own thoughts and rose to my elbows. No more of this. I needed to get away. I needed a way out, from this foreign cot and my own newly foreign head.
When I moved my aching feet to the side of the cot in order to reach the floor, my foggy brain was startled by the quiver of fabric leaking down my bare legs. My skirts had not been so long in hundreds of days. A ring of fabric pooled at my ankles, layering in a deep, unfamiliar dark green colour. I had been changed into a floor length skirt, something that puzzled me beyond belief. Care and clothing? I plucked my tunic from my chest and examined it at the end of my pinched fingers- that too was different. Worn, but clean. A faded grey. It had been a long while since I had worn something that was not the colour of old blood.
The clothing would have otherwise made me overheat, but with my skull meat exposed, I was comfortable despite my panic. My entire head felt like a stranger under my skin. Whoever had brought the clothes had also worked on my hair- the side that still retained hair was braided tightly against my scalp, perhaps to further avoid it falling out. Even my broken teeth had been pulled while I was asleep. My tongue could not even find the thinnest sliver of tooth where my infected chompers used to be. My face was still swollen, but I was better. Someone had made me better.
I forced myself to my feet despite my spinning head and strange sluggishness. My eyes were slow to drift about the room, but I could tell the Wife and the woman in leather were not there with me. They seemed to match me in difficulty and hard-headedness; if I was up before I was ready to be, they would have wrestled me back into the metal-framed cot. You only truly know how much of a rotten, stubborn creature you are until another, even more rotten beast plops its ass on your turf.
My feet were still bare as they lazily shuffled around on the stone, attempting to make their way out into the main room. Humans were the only animals who seemed to find discomfort in total silence, or rather, what the silence insinuated. It made me wonder where the Wife and her tiny companion had gone.
Remnants of their old life before the fall of the mutt so many compared to the sun stuck out at me as I wandered, slowly, back towards the reality lurking behind the open circular door. The doorway to the main room was lined with Before-Time objects I had never had the opportunity to explore, mostly reading material. I knew the rectangular blocks of what looked to be smooth, sun-dried bricks contained the knowledge of the old world, because I could recognize the Before-Time language pressed onto every side of the foreign objects. I did, for once, not have the energy to attempt to decipher what exactly this alien information was attempting to communicate through the pictures posted on a handful of the bricks. I was suffering, and the painful had no use for the superfluous.
The overflow of littered word-bricks made the hallway narrower than it should have been, but I was used to dealing with cramped spaces. The Boys, when in their collective nasty and playful moods, were particularly grabby and delighted in pressing in around me, only to jostle me about and bark at me for lazing when I became too comfortable. However, when they had filled their bellies with rations and they had been freshly bandaged, I would be permitted to sit closely to them. Sometimes, they would even play with my hair like curious infants. Of course, this was all before it had begun to fall out.
The room was dead where the pups had once been. I could hear the slap of my own bare, heavy feet against the ground. It was echoic, and if I were still a child I knew I would have delighted in shouting into the silence, if only to hear the familiarity of my own voice shout right back at me. Personal things were loose, scattered across the floor: short boots laces meant for tiny feet, some rusted nuts piled high in the middle of the room and probably used as trading tokens, even the odd lost tool that they had probably snuck into the room when they were being passed through. The only thing left of them besides these precious things were their boot prints, small but purposeful.
White paint was slapped on the floor amid the mess, more Before-Time speech, like a clear moon on a black night. War Pup paint mingled with the symbols. The very soul of the pups, their own pale paint, muddled and made the message unclear. Whatever the Wives had wanted to get across while painting this was not clear, not anymore.
The hair on the back of my neck crawled suddenly, reacting to a phantom breeze. I was watching the room, but I was not watching it alone. I had learned to feel danger before it came. It was how I stayed alive, all those months with all those men.
A proper War Boy stood posted, stone-faced but still somehow bitter, in the arc of the doorway, arms straightened at his sides with his chest out like a self-righteous lizard hovering around his mound of sand. I recognized him- that impressive height and those wide shoulders and that stick up his ass.
The man who had punched out my teeth stared at me for a second before he dared part those ugly, thin lips. I damn near expected him to snarl at me like he had then; I instinctively dug my feet into the ground, expecting a harsh blow despite the distance between us. One must always bunker down the moment they see a storm, no matter how far away it seems.
“Calm down, wretch,” he said, though nothing about his tone matched his instructions, like advising a burn victim to go and roast in the sun. “I don’t want this anymore than you do. Cripes, you’re fuckin’ disgusting… let’s go before this ends up nastier than it needs to be.”
He seemed calmer than the last time I saw him, but not in a sense where he was feeling better. He looked different, bagged eyes and a looser posture. He was tired, and he didn’t want to be here. I couldn’t say I felt much different.
I thoughtlessly reached for the knife I had lost and backed away from him, squinting at him to focus my stinging eyes. Why was he here? Was I asleep? I was too painful to be. Why would the Mother tease me with more than I could handle, especially now, after I had gone through so much?
“…what the fuck is wrong with you?” I breathed, and though I knew he could throttle me for even insinuating that his manly graces were anything less than extraordinary, the throbbing in my head and limbs kept me from wisely shutting my mouth.
His arms crossed, and like the bags under his eyes, he swelled a bit. Angry. I didn’t have the cognitive faculties at the time to realize how gravely I had fucked myself over.
I could nearly hear the rattle of a serpentine tail as he approached from the outside, where the green paper in basket still hung on shivering chains. I envied their safety in height and numbers.
My mouth was too big for my own good. I had learned as much thanks to this very Boy. I also had grown enough to realize that I had no reason for my anger, truly. He hadn’t even really insulted me yet.
I should have known better, I should have known better, I should have known better.
“I’ll crack you like an egg, shithead,” he snarled, but I could tell it was all an act. He would have punched me by now, if he had wanted to. And yet his hands were still in fists at his sides. It only encouraged me further. Perhaps it was the drugs or the fact that the Wife had been dull enough to leave me alone, but I had the rampant urge to tear this fucker a new one.
I held a finger up at him, which stopped him in his tracks. I caught him off guard before a single sound could emerge from his throat.
“No. Why the fuck are y’here? Y’come trailin’ in after damn near killin’ me the last time I saw your ugly face and y’just expect me t’follow you t’Mother-knows-where when everyone else is gone? Get fucked. I am too fuckin’ tired for this shit! Crack m’like an egg if y’want, but y’need t’know that y’are a ridiculously rusted piece of scrap if y’think I’m actually gonna listen t’anythin’ y’have t’spill from your gapin’ gob!”
I spread my arms at him to demonstrate my total lack of patience with him. However, I didn’t even have enough time to clap my hands to my meager thighs and make that satisfying sound that marked the end of a conquered argument.
I was grabbed by the time my arms were halfway down to my sides, and I didn’t even have the opportunity to scream before I was plucked from the ground from my pits, swung over the asshole’s broad shoulder, and dangled from my knees as I was carried out the door.
Blood rushed to my head as my forehead came into contact with his bare back. His paint was beginning to wear off where his belt was clinging to his hips, and I could feel the sway of his body, like a pup would in its mother’s arms. However, the swaying was less than comforting for me.
“Sister Capable wants you to wash. Taking you to the Watering Hole. Fuck, nothing’s simple with you, is it, rat?” he spat, giving me a good jostle as he tightened the grip he had around my knees.
My lone braid dangled into my eyes as the realization set in- so the Wife left me alone with the War Boy on purpose. She knew I wouldn’t be willing to go with her, so she sent someone to fetch me by force. Whether she knew exactly what this man had done to me or not was a mystery, but I didn’t doubt that she had some sort of divine ability to snoop and get what she wanted out of certain people. She got a nurse out of a midwife, after all.
I was too weak to struggle for very long, though that did not keep me from tormenting the man who was carrying me about like a dead carcass. If he had had a full head of hair, I might have resorted to my childhood tactics of tugging on locks. With my options have been shaved down, I let the natural, bodily distaste for the situation show. I spewed a couple of times, due to the drugs and the repetitive motion of his body swaying, and I was pleased to see some of the vomit hit the back of his trouser legs. I managed to chuckle with drunken relish at his pissed groaning, but my enjoyment in his disgust did not last very long. He began to take it upon himself to nick me against the rocky edges of halls every time we were forced to turn a corner. The back of my arms and ribs were knocked harshly, dragged against the stone, or just simply rammed into the wall.
By the time we reached what the asshole had called the Watering Hole, I was scraped up completely, and he was reeking of sick. Without even speaking, I’m certain he had declared a draw, for the moment we reached that pair of familiar, monstrous doors, doors I had only ever seen on one other occasion with Pit at my side, I was all but tossed to the ground.
I landed on a grate with a metallic clang, one I hadn’t noticed on my initial visit to this place with Pit, but that clearly made its presence known to me when I nearly knocked myself into darkness by smacking my already muddled head against it with a whine.
“Stay!” he hissed, sticking his own thick finger in my face as I groaned and sat up from the harsh, sandy floor. I lunged to bite him, but he moved away too quickly. Fuckhead.
Other War Boys, all younger than me but about the same age as my captor, gave the asshole raised eyebrows and threw snickering insults his way.
“Blackout, y’got a little somethin’…” one boy started, gesturing to the asshole’s lower half in broad circles with his open palm.
The asshole looked as if he wanted to punch his fellow War Boy in the teeth, as he had done to me. But instead, he simply grumbled and irritable ‘I know’ before stalking off down the opposite hall, shaking his wet pant leg like a dingo with mites.
I recognized a pair of shadows in the hall the asshole was moving towards- the Wife and the woman in leather were both stood there, talking in low tones and purposefully not looking in my direction. I figured that they must have known that I was there- the asshole had made a grand display of my arrival, what with launching me halfway across the room, but the Wife especially was focused on keeping her neck stiff, unable to meet by gaze for some reason. Perhaps she was finally feeling remorseful for drugging me.
I must have sat there for at least a couple of hours, curled on the floor and occasionally vomiting into the grate beside me, rubbing my sore limbs and attempting to come to terms with my new sense of self. I was officially a pet of the Wife. The War Boys steered clear of me for the most part, which I was unused to after the time I had spent with needy creatures like Two-Limb. Even Ace, reserved in his old age, would have surely come over to inspect what was the matter with me at least once. They knew something I didn’t. They must have.
The third hour mark came and went before I decided they were not going to wash me. It didn’t take much longer to realize that nothing was happening. For someone who had insinuated, time and time again, that I would be returned to the Bloodshed upon my recovery, the Wife was making no attempts to do anything to get them back to me. While I waited, I paid attention to the rising smell of sweat and something else, something worse, around me.
One of the least useful senses to a midwife was her sense of smell. If anything, such a thing could be a nuisance in the right circumstances- if a woman sullied herself while giving birth, for example, the smell could sometimes be so disgusting that we would need to air out the tent by pulling back the flaps. And smells always lingered, especially the bad ones.
The smell was coming from the grate, though it was more foul than vomit, I could tell. It was wafting up and into the room, though the Boys there with me didn’t seem to notice. They must have been used to the scent. The Wife and the woman in leather, however, still on their side of the room, were grimacing and gagging quietly, attempting to keep their revolted expressions from me. I could see them, of course. I could always see them.
The scent was getting stronger, more pungent. Soon it felt like I was bathing in it. I couldn’t help it- before I could control myself, right my thoughts and attempt to plug my nose, I became a sticky-fingered, curious child again. I moved to my knees and peered into the grate.
Death incarnate stared right back at me.
Bodies parts, mangled and severed, limbs and torsos and thighs, were being carried on tarps in the narrow, short hall below the grate by sweating War Boys. Those who were not carrying the limbs were holding on heavy buckets full of water. They were heading in the direction from whence the asshole and I had come: they were taking the victims to the room with the circular door.
My eyesight was still fuzzy, but I leaned in closer and squinted in order to get a better look at the bodies. One poor bastard was only a head and a torso. The back of his neck was aggressively cracked into a hump, perfectly framed by a circular scar. A War Boy brand.
One of the Boys carrying the tarps tripped, and the rotten limbs rolled and jumped, making the flies that had landed to feast on the old flesh scatter and buzz in angry storm cloud of a swarm. The head and torso rolled over so I could see the man’s face.
He was blonde and beautiful. The one who had protected me from Two-Limb’s wrath. I couldn’t even find it in my consciousness to vomit as more and more familiar faces, legs, arms, and shaved scalps were hauled away and out of sight, leaving only the sound and smell of mourning in their wake.
My babies were dead.
Chapter 21: Chapter 20
Rush sees everything in pieces.
I had heard far too many expressions from the Before-Time come from Maude’s lips that made little sense, both in and out of their respective contexts. When I was younger, and in need of entertainment while we were awaiting a pup to make themselves ready to emerge from their mother’s belly, she would sometimes try to explain some of the funnier of her sayings to make me giggle. ‘Raining cats and dogs’ was a favourite of mine, due to the multiple layers of ancient knowledge that I had to mentally wade through in order to understand even a lick of what my mother was jabbering on about. ‘Rain’ was cola that used to pour from the sky before the old folks went to war. ‘Cats’ were tiny, fuzzy creatures that jumped leaps and bounds with ease and that drank milk like human folk. ‘Dogs’ were like dingoes, and I had seen mutts before. The expression meant that there was lots of cola falling from the blue above, but I always imagined the wild mutts and the milk-drinkers hopping out of dust clouds, biting at lightning. It was only in the minds of pups and powerful folk that such delusions could become fact in their grey bits, if only for a little while.
One saying that I hated while I was growing was ‘it’s easy to forget’, probably because it gravely insulted me on some level. I never forgot anything, back then. I could recall facts, faces, conversations, like I was a wandering History Woman who had them stamped into her own skin. I could make mistakes, certainly, but they were never due to forgetfulness. They were due to chaos, to stress, to the screaming and blood that never seemed to leave my side, a second shadow. Distraction made me fumble; overworking made me rot and rust all at once.
I hated that phrase even more after I had found out about my babies. Not because I thought I was above the advice in those words, but because it had occurred to me that they were more truthful than anything else I would ever come to hear.
When I ran back towards the room with the circular door, I forgot, and I could not even characterize it as easy. It was mindless, simpler than simple, a breathless breath. I knew people were following me, because I could hear something stalking and yelling, like the encroaching growl of a distant engine, but I had resorted to becoming one of the mutts and milk-drinkers of my youth, animal. Time was of the essence, that was another one of Maude’s favourites. I was thinking, perhaps, that if I moved quickly enough, I might be able to string them back from their state of broken pieces and let them live again. They were rotting in my care, but they had blood pumping in them and they still had enough nastiness to fight when the war drums called them to the road. They were like me: painfully unwilling to die.
Even if I hadn’t a clue where I was going in this ant hill of a stronghold, the sounds of a crowd drew me towards my destination. I didn’t know what I was expecting when I reached the threshold, the gates that my babies would be delivered into, but the huffing of aggravated, exhausted people huddle together in a single-file line was more than a surprise.
Amid the green paper exploding from their baskets and twirling on chains, dirtied folk with the tired eyes and hunched shoulders of workers grumbled and shuffled forwards in slow, methodical movements as the group moved in a sluggish hook formation, leading in and out of the room where I had been drugged. Those who wandered in sported frowns and agitated expressions; those who wandered out were calm and held heavy packages wrapped in thin fabric in their arms.
I knew what they were holding. And the thought of my babies being passed out to strangers for the feasting made understand something I had long ago questioned.
When women couldn’t pay us, they offered us their dead pups for food, but Maude had a moral compass about that sort of thing and never accepted. I understood why, now. Hunger should never hold a higher price than a human life, no matter what the growling our gutty works made or how desperately we begged for a morsel. Life was life, and taking it away for selfish reasons was and always would remain beyond all reasonable comprehension.
I accelerated my pace to something I dared say otherworldly, because I could feel my knees jangling under my skin as my toughened feet slapped against the floor. People in the line hollered and snarled at me as I passed them, their restlessness overtaking them like a disease as I rushed passed them. I was sure if I had brought myself to that place but an hour or so later than I had originally arrived, I would have been choked to death for even considering that my needs were above theirs.
Joe had always said that aqua cola made folks crazy. I was witnessing that hunger made them beasts.
I managed to squeeze my way through the crowded doorway without anyone snatching my braided tail, though I did feel annoyed hands snatching at my longer skirts and the uproar of a frustrated crowd as I followed the piercing light the glass dome was allowing into the space.
To this day, I wish the sun had blinded me. I wish I didn’t have to see what I had come across. Perhaps that day was the word of the Mother, her punishment to me for ever thinking I was worth more than the lovely men I treated, or that I deserved to be treated differently simply because my profession was one of worth. The truth of the matter was, I was still human, and all humans were equal before the Mother, in the end. Who was I, a midwife rising to the heights of gods, to believe I was one?
In the center of the room, in the pit I had originally noticed but dismissed, piled high like the stomped bones of a sun-dried carcass, were the dismembered bodies of my boys, stacked high and being wrapped up and handed off like simple pieces of meat to hungry folks, all of which looked like me. Wretches. Wretches who I should have known better than anyone, who I should have understood. But in my sorrow, I was senseless.
I don’t remember collapsing and being moved. But I do clearly recall the Wife sobbing at the sight of me and explaining what had happened. Stray phrases lingered, stitched into the fabric of my mind with wire instead of thread.
Rations were low. People were hungry. They needed someone to blame. We can’t just throw the bodies now, Rush. People are starving. It’s the way things are. It’s the way things are. It’s the way things are.
She said other things too, but I didn’t listen. I was thinking about Joe- it was a nice thought, letting Wretches up here, trying to feed them all, trying to make one big fucking family, but shit wasn’t so easy in a place like this. At least Joe had half the fucking mind to keep the desperate folk away from others, and punish them with a lack of water when they acted up. In the Wife’s world, she did not smack the thieving child, but praised her and cooed at her. No one was punished except for those who had croaked. They had their honor ripped from them, post-mortem.
By the time the last man had been sent off with his cut of meat, leaving nothing but lost heads in his wake, staring blankly up into the heavens or down at the dirt, I had been lightly drugged twice and even physically restrained with fabric around the ankles and wrists. Dragged back to the Watering Hole, purposefully sat away from the grate where I had smelled my babies’ corpses, forced to sit beside the Wife and the woman in leather until my terrified sorrow melted to numbness and they trusted me with standing and wandering on my own.
I watched the Wife as I paced the space; she seemed just as disturbed as I was, and I knew why. Stuck in a cycle of grief in relief, she was, so much I could tell; grieving for the deaths of innocents, relieved that said innocents were gone and did not have to be on her mind any longer. She had killed some folk, but she had also removed the sour memory that accompanied their presence in her care from her mind. Painful happiness, like removing an insect’s stinger from one’s own arm to keep one’s self from swelling up too harshly.
However, there was something different about the Wife’s reaction to the bad news, something out of the norm. She kept making a wincing expression, one made after being slapped and expecting the stinging blow of knuckles just after the bite of an open palm. There was more to come from this pain, and whatever it was, she didn’t want to tell me.
The woman in leather was irritated with her. I could tell that, too. She stood with her back to the wall, eyes low, speaking to her, her mouth moving in harsh angles and exposing her teeth. She was trying to keep it subtle, her displeasure, trying to make it seem as if everything was normal, but that too was nothing but a mask. The Wife was being scolded. And as she delivered the sinister hiss of insults and savagery, she kept looking at me. I was involved. I was always involved.
I don’t know how long I was there for, pausing my pacing, spewing like I had that morning from the new drugs and rubbing my raw skin of my wrists, but the sun came down long before I was approached again by another person. I had officially been labelled looney in the few hours I had been around these younger War Boys. They were all delighted and horrified of my presence, and I’m sure if they had been a bit younger, they surely would have reached out and tugged on my remaining hair just to see if they could illicit a reaction from me. I had no one to come to my defense. The only thing I had with which to soothe myself were the old, puckered scars on my arms. Memories of a time both far better and worse than they had ever been for me.
Eventually I fell asleep on the floor, clutching myself, stuck in a petrified state. Time moved both slowly and quickly, with emotional exhaustion. Blinks turned into long bouts of rest; squeezing my eyes shut for what felt like hours were only truly common minutes. I thought about Maude, what she might tell me at that time, but she was silent in my head. Even she would be mourning. Who wouldn’t be?
I dreamt of the night that Pa had left Maude and I. Details were blurry. My brain had cut me off from knowing too much, perhaps to protect my sanity, but I pushed through the storm clouds in my mind and struggled to find meaning in the strange sensations I was experiencing all over again. The sound of boots shuffling in the falling sand; the smell of something burning over a distant fire; the scruff of Pa’s beard as he leaned over to press his lips to my cheek in a stale kiss.
To this day, I will never know why Pa left. My mind had settled on believing that it was because he found better opportunities for himself somewhere fantastic; when I was younger, I always believed he would come back to us and bring us to where he had gone. Part of me still wanted to believe that. Despite having come to a happy conclusion, I still thought of Pa on most days. Perhaps it was because I knew I would never see him again no matter how hard I prayed. Or, perhaps it was because I was secretly pleased once he was gone. Just like the Wife, with my babies.
In my dream, Pa leaned over to kiss me, as he always did when I remembered him in this sense, though something was off about this evening’s recollection of events- when he leaned over, he put his mouth right up against the shell of my ear, and he whispered to me. His breath was hot and moist. I was immobilized by the foreign affection.
They aren’t all dead.
I woke up in a cold sweat, but I was not alone there, sore and broken on the floor. When I shot up, desperately tossing my head in the darkness in order to find the source of the voice who was feeding me such pretty lies, I did not find my father. Instead, the woman in leather sat there stiffly in the dark, hands on her knees as she rested her weight on her thighs. She looked solemn, possibly because she knew I had heard her well.
My shattered heart trembled as I scooted towards her. I could hear my own whimpering breath.
“…what did you say?” I asked, but she shook her head at me. She didn’t need to say it again.
“I’m not supposed to tell you. Capable, she—she thinks this isn’t right. Thinks those Boys were doing you more harm than good. But you deserve to know.” Her tone was even, but hard.
I couldn’t keep my voice down. I couldn’t even think. Words fell hard and fast as I grabbed her sleeves and shook her.
“Where?! Where?!” I screamed, my voice bouncing off of the high walls, but the woman in leather remained dead silent as she pried my hands off of her.
“They’re not in good shape,” she continued, not even raising her voice for a moment. “I don’t know how long they might last.”
“Let me see!” I roared, and in the dark behind the woman in leather, I could hear grumbling and shuffling. The woman in leather grabbed my wrist and squeezed, silencing me as she brought me to my feet.
She was going against the Wife’s word. It impressed me. I liked this woman, tiny but fierce as she was. She inspired hope in me.
We stumbled around in the dark for a few moments, but the woman in leather knew exactly where we were headed. I heard the creaking of a door opening, and my heart stopped and started. We were headed inside the Watering Hole, into the place Pit had attempted to take me all those days ago.
The door was shut behind us, and the room got even darker than it had been out in the hall. Not a drop of light infiltrated the space, most likely to keep the water within cool. The woman in leather was prepared for that, too. She released my hand and, without a minute, light filled the room from a lamp she was cradling in her palm.
Light fill my eyes, and so did the sight of my remaining Boys.
Two broken and bruised figures sat hunched in the far corner of the room, bloodied nearly beyond recognition. But I knew.
I knew those missing limbs. I knew that bandaged face. I knew that ugly snarl, and those lumps, and those scar-like wrinkles.
My Ace and my Two-Limb were alive.
Chapter 22: Chapter 21
Rush takes care of her boys.
Somehow, knowing I would not be taken from those I had loved so much again could only be described as getting shot in the knees by Ace and Slit’s eyes, four barrels that fired blindly in the new light and got me floored before I could even find it in me to scream. For a moment, I even thought I heard them boom like guns, as the paired of them made furious snarling and growling noises at the Wife. Their respective safeties were clicked on one I began moving- maybe seeing that I was alive kept them from turning feral, at least at that moment.
Ace held his arms out to me and said nothing when I scrambled over, couldn’t even find it in himself to scold me when I began howling and clinging to him despite his multiple injuries. His arms were utterly torn apart, both bruised and sliced to the point of near-uselessness, and yet he still held me fiercely, as if he did not have it in himself to let me leave again. Flaps of his loose skin had been pinned to his arms with the laces of his boots, and though dried blood soaked the thin roped and fresher life juice dripped eagerly from the wounds, there was no pus in sight. The Mother must have had her eye on him. I had never seen someone avoid infection and death as well as Ace did.
I could distinctly hear the woman in leather place her oil lamp down where she was stood before turning and making her way outside. Already, I could hear the shrill sounds of another woman’s voice warbling at her from behind the large doors. As the woman in leather shut them with a thunderous slam and a cloud of fine dust and sand, I knew she had partially regretted what she had done. She would have to face the Wife’s wrath, and that was a feat in itself. I would have to be careful around her from then on. I could sense she was running short on her charitability.
With the light now left to ourselves, I hurried to pull the flame closer to my Boys in order to check over their wounds, but Slit irritably turned away from the lamp and huffed through his nose. He had not breathed a word since I had arrived, and he did not even dare to turn and face me. He was hunched over his legs and clutching the back of his head with his remaining hand. Yet, I knew that he knew it was me. If he thought I was someone else, he would have walloped me. That much, I know.
“C’mon, Two-Limb, s’okay now,” I crooned softly past my hiccupping sobs, reaching out gingerly in order to draw my fingers down the back of his shoulder. His entire upper backed was scraped raw, looking like a piece of metal with half of the rust scrubbed from its surface. Dried blood had soiled him down to the waist, and I could tell he was severely uncomfortable, because he kept curling his shoulders inwards to avoid my touch.
“Leave ‘im, girly, ‘e ain’t in good shape,” Ace advised. The hoarseness of his voice drew me away. The quality of his speech sounded monstrous, as if he had been screaming or crying for hours.
“Let m’see, I can’t make things worse,” I insisted regardless, wrapping my hand around Slit’s arm. He gurgled when I touched him, twitching uncontrollably with the discomfort, before slowly shifting his weight over so that he could face me.
His face was absolutely destroyed. The cheeks I had sewn up so many months ago with my own hair were only half-healed and, upon closer inspection, were beginning to scarify separately, creating three completely independent cheeks on his mouth. Surprisingly, that was the very least of my worries.
His mouth was an absolute warzone. His lips were being pulled in a score of different directions, having turned purple and black from surface bruising and major swelling. Yellow pus was dripping in fat droplets from the corners of his mouth, but he could not wipe them away. His mouth was clamped shut due to a series of small, metallic staples, haphazardly driven into his face in a rushed effort to keep his mouth shut, and it didn’t look as if he could fit his thick fingers between the metal bars in order to wipe the foul smelling drippings away. All he could do was let the pus roll down to the point of his chin and drip to the floor. A tiny moisture patch was already forming at his feet.
I didn’t think it would be possible to disfigure the poor man more than he already was, but someone had managed to ruin him. He huffed and attempted to pull his mouth apart, but that just caused a stream of fresh blood to splatter from his lips. A mixture of blood and pus splattered across my face, but I shook it off with a shake of my head and rapidly placed a hand beneath his chin and the other on top of his head. I began forcing his mouth closed despite his angry trilling, but with some pressure he got the point. He yanked his head away from me and shoved his bloody palm at the side of my head. A red handprint was left behind. Fucking rustbucket. His remaining temper was a good sign, at least.
“Mother almighty, what did they do t’you?” I hissed through a breath, reaching out to touch his sore mouth with the pads of my fingers. My contact with the cool metal came all too quickly; before I could even begin applying pressure on his mouth, Slit reared his ugly head and slammed his forehead against mine with a surprisingly loud thunk.
I fell back on my tailbone and wined loudly as I clutched at my sore head. Any lower and he would have surely shattered my nose. Though he couldn’t open his mouth to shout at me, I could hear a repeated sound he was attempting to make without using his lips.
Traitor! Traitor! Traitor!
“Hey! Pup! That’s enough!” Ace ordered, clapping his large hand over Slit’s forehead and grinding his skull back against the wall. Slit vocalized loudly from behind his staples, but ended slumped down against the cool ground once he realized he wouldn’t be understood regardless of his wordless bitching.
“He’s a mess,” I mourned, watching as Slit numbly caressed the stump of his missing hand.
Ace took a seat at my side, resting his bloodied arms on his knees with a sigh. “Rioters. Wanted t’make an example outta ‘im. Held ‘im down and started shovin’ metal into ‘is face, wanted t’shut ‘im up good before slicing his throat. By the time they were done and ready to cut ‘im apart… new management showed up and shut ‘em down.”
“New management?” I breathed, and a chill crawled up my spine.
Ace nodded numbly. “Furiosa an’ her fuckin’ traitorin’ folk.” He spat into the ground to emphasize his point. I didn’t prod him further regarding the war hero. She was a myth I never wanted to encounter.
“…and you?” I asked, reaching out to touch his arm. He took my hand in his with a huffing laughed and squeezed softly.
“Nothin’. Didn’t have no weapons, had t’get crafty, is all. Grabbed the Organic Mechanic and tried usin’ ‘im as a meat shield, but when that didn’t work, I grabbed a wretch by the throat, tossed ‘im next t’the Organic’s spot, and used the fat fuck’s arm t’leave him blue and foamin’. Squirmy bastard was hidin’ a sharp in his sleeve and tried t’get me t’let go. Just scrapes, really. Just scrapes.”
Ace holding my hand as he was doing was an extensive blessing. Truly, he was the one whose body I was most afraid to see in that huge pile of my Boys. When I hadn’t seen him in the pile of corpses, I figured he was simply not going to be offered up as meat. He had so many lumps, I wasn’t sure how attractive he’d be as a meal, even to the starved and desperate. He was old enough to know how to defend himself without needing to rush into battle, I should have figured that he was still alive.
Slit, on the other hand… Slit was living on complete luck. The Mother wouldn’t shelter someone so foolish, and I doubt his fucked up god cared enough about a simple soldier. The cruelty of those who had found him first was the only thing that allowed him to live. Though, I know that even their cruelty would catch up with him.
“…’e won’t last much longer with those staples. How long has it been since e’s eaten? Had cola?” I asked.
“Hasn’t eaten since y’left. He’s managed some cola, but he keeps tearin’ himself a new damn mouth hole every time ‘e tries t’take a slurpin’,” he said.
“And ‘is grey bits? ‘E seems… all rattled-like,” I grimaced, rubbing the tender spot on my forehead. When had he started head-butting? He usually began with spitting or rubbing his fluids all over me before he resorted to aggression.
Ace’s face greyed and turned somber, and without warning, he reached out and affectionately palmed the naked side of my head, patted me there. I flinched away slightly from the touch, but I still let him hold my hand.
“We lost lots o’ Boys, durin’ that war,” he said bitterly, and we both lost as Slit miserably rolled onto his side in an attempt to escape our conversation. He must have known what we were talking about, to a degree, and he didn’t like being mentioned. “E’s… e’s just rememberin’ ‘em all.”
I wondered exactly who this ugly creature could have attracted into friendship, especially when he was healthy, with two angry fists and proper legs to kick and tussle with. Ace seemed to tolerate him, but that was only because Slit was required to submit. Refusing to comply with Ace’s demands was asking for punishment. I didn’t know who else could tolerate such a man. Whoever else it had been must have been damn-near saintly.
“We have t’get those staples out,” I decided, but Ace simply gestured to his beltless pants in response.
“No tools. An’ I doubt the Wife would let you back in the bloodshed. You’re walkin’ the razor’s edge, girly.”
“I’m not askin’ for any more favours from that bitch, anyhow. Knowin’ her, I’ll just end up screwed again,” I snarled. My anger dulled at the sight of Slit miserably running his stump hand across his shut mouth. This wasn’t about my anger, in the end. This was never even about me to start with.
“No use askin’ for favours. Citadel’s gone t’shit. We have t’fend for ourselves like a trio o’rusted dingoes, pickin’ scraps,” Ace muttered.
I watched the flame dance apathetically between the three of us. Slit wouldn’t last much longer if we stayed, but Citadel after dark, especially during these times, was not a place I wanted to navigate alone. We were stuck until dawn, with only a tiny flame to keep us from the dark.
When my gaze wandered from the flame, it fell again on Ace’s ruined arms. Even if he had died from his wounds, no one would want a corpse that had already been sliced. Breeding turf for flies and a nursery for maggots, they were. Even a nice, hot fire wouldn’t kill all the nasty critters living inside him. I knew that I would certainly rather starve than die fever-looney.
The dark hairs on my arms and neck raised to attention. Flame. We didn’t have anything to cook over it, but Mother in her eternal kingdom, we had flame. I refused to just sit here for hours, waiting for a morning that might bring nothing but more waiting. There was work to be done.
“Ace, let m’see your arms,” I demanded, but didn’t wait for him to question my curiosity. I snatched him at the wrist and elbow and lifted his arm to my eyes. Besides a few wonky-looking cuts, the majority of the slices were clean and ran in long, straight lines. I could fix this. I knew that I could fix this.
Ace seemed to be able to read my mind regarding the procedure I was planning. He puffed out his chest and rolled his shoulders as I plucked carefully at the laces, emotionlessly staring into the tiny flame.
“I can’t promise y’that I won’t scream,” he said, and I smiled carefully up at him, the way I would at worried mothers who were getting too weak to push.
“I got tough ears. Trust me. Y’just got t’stay still for me, Old Balls,” I said, and he smiled right back at me.
I placed one of his arms across my thigh and balanced the small lamp on my other thigh. I had never closed a wound with fire, but this was all I could do. Sure, Ace might end up with scars, but this would keep him from death for now. There was no way of knowing if the Mother would keep her eye on him forever.
I picked up the lamp and held it by his arm. I could feel Slit’s eyes on us, but somehow, their respective gazes became one as I looked into Ace’s face. He nodded at me. It was now my opportunity to hurt for others.
The smell of burning flesh reached my nostrils just as Ace’s howling growls swarmed my ears. I watched his flesh melt and bond back with itself with the aid of my pinched fingers. Blood and smoke spurted from Ace’s arm like debris spurted out of storm clouds. Periodically, I had to turn back and check on Slit, who was vomiting but could not expel the sick. I had to go over a handful of times, wriggle my thin pinky finger between the metallic staples, and forced it between his lips in order for the sick to drip out of his mouth, down my arm, and onto the floor to join the pile of pus his wounded face had started there. When he was able to breathe again, I could only wipe my hands on my new skirts and go back to Ace, trying desperately not to have the same reaction.
The scent made me gag, but it also reminded me of a childhood full of ignorance. How could I have ever wanted to eat another person?
Perhaps I didn’t mind the thought because I never had to watch them roasting.
Hey everyone! Just wanted to let you know that if you guys are hungry for some more Rush content, myself and Weirdness_Unlimited have begun writing a new story in which Rush and Weirdness's characters are featured!
Please check it out and thanks again for reading and supporting Midwife Rising. c:
Chapter 23: Chapter 22
Rush fights with metal.
I had never held a grown man in my arms before.
I hadn’t lived long enough to say that I had ever been in love. Love was for the fools who did not work hard enough and who had enough energy to pass along to another person; love made people die young; love was certainly not something I could afford to dream of, unless I enjoyed the feeling of being let down. Cradling anyone with every bit of my Mother-given attention and care had been strictly reserved for distressed mothers and fresh pups. In all honestly, I never thought that rocking anyone but myself to sleep at night would ever be a viable option for me.
Folks said that the Citadel did strange things to one’s self. I never would have believe that such a notion would ever apply to me. And yet, the night after I had burned the wounds of the infamous Ace’s arms shut, I ended up reclined against the wall with him leaning back and into me, fitfully sleeping and waking every so often to growl and groan with the pain.
I didn’t have any ointment to give Ace. The only comfort I could offer him was that of my touch. I stayed awake nearly all night, stroking the dome of his bald head and soothingly rooting my fingers in the stubble of his growing beard. I tried to hold Slit in my arms, too, but he still seemed somewhat hesitant to be near me. He settled on resting his head a few inches beside my thigh, his long arms tossed over his head. In the night, while he slept, he would roll onto his side and throw his ruined left arm into my lap; when he would wake again, he’d pull the arm back and kick at me with his boot. An inner turmoil even he couldn’t deny.
We tossed all night, and I waited diligently for those doors to open back up again, wondering at all if anyone would be coming to fetch us before Slit carked it. By morning, both of them were asleep on me, and I was staring at the floor of the space, my grey bits too exhausted to find anything else to focus on.
The Watering Hole was filled with barrels upon barrels of what I assumed to be aqua cola, each of which was guarded fiercely by means of a lock and key. The lid of each metal barrel was chained and locked, and I figured that each barrel was probably opened, emptied, and filled every day, despite there being nowhere in this relatively small space to refill the barrels once rations had been given out. They just handed out aqua cola here; where they sourced it from was a mystery.
I hadn’t a clue as to why the boys had been placed here once the riots had ran their course. Perhaps it was because the guards could better control exactly who came in and out of this place; perhaps it was because they were out of options. Both seemed probable.
Morning came at the sound of the large doors creaking open, and the sound of deep, carnal gagging. The room smelled like smoke and burnt flesh, that much, I knew, and the War Boys who were stationed here seemed to be unused to at least one of those scents.
The boy called Blackout was among those who entered first, and I could tell he was looking for some attention. He strode about under the eye of his fellow mates, a bird during mating season, preening his feathers and plucking through the other competition with his eyes. His mate, invisible, but still very present- the concept of honor and grit. Those his nose wrinkled and his lips curled, he would not recoil at the scent Ace and I had made, a combination of our skills and fire. Instead, he made a show of pulling up his trousers like he hadn’t a care in the world and gazing carelessly around the room before seemingly noticing me.
He had wanted to seem brave in the eyes of the flock, but when he locked eyes with mine, I made him falter. Beneath each of my arms was a War Boy of high rank: both of them his senior, both of them Fury Road survivors, both of them asleep and with stilled wickedness under my smooth dark skin. Neither of them would have admitted to wanting my touch in front of this impressionable youth, but in the throes of sleep they relented and relished in me. Ace was tucked into my neck; Slit had his arm in my lap and my palm on his stubbly head.
I, the elder, snarled at the youth, and he cowered despite having strength I had long ago lost. I raised my chin at him. History always won out against bravery in one way or another.
“…you burned him,” he said, a little more loudly than I might have liked, obviously attempting to rally those around him to his side. Dozens of eyes turned towards me in unison, burning like individual albino suns, burning into the fabric of my very being and pulling me apart by the threads.
“I saved him,” I said, curling my legs inwards as they approached, unwilling to get injured when my Boys were in such great need of me. “Where did y’learn that savin’ was painless? You’re young. Y’don’t know nothin’ yet.”
“And him?” Blackout cocked his chin at Slit, who was huffing through his nose erratically as he began to wake. I immediately began smoothing my palm soothingly along the curve of his head, which didn’t comfort him much but at least kept him from throwing himself directly at the stranger that had made the mistake of wandering into his line of vision so early in the day.
“…he’s not your concern. Just because he once wore your colours don’t mean he’s your property,” I seethed, and I could tell the comment struck him hard somewhere within, somewhere where it clearly hurt. He had wanted to reclaim his fellow War Boys in a grand display of manliness and fortitude, but he had been struck down with nothing but words. He couldn’t wrap his head around the defeat. It just made him angrier.
Make a note of such things: War Boys do not appreciate new things, but they certainly do not appreciate confusion.
He got the same look in his eye that he had that first day we had met, just outside these foreboding doors, and I could hear the snarl forming in his throat. I got nervous despite myself, especially when, like a pack of rabid mutts, the other boys sensed the growing tension of a potential brawl and began to close in. There were no bets exchanged, no rations being tossed about as I had seen during my time in the Blood Shed when patients would toss one-another around- there was no point. If Blackout wanted a match for blood, I would be dead in seconds.
Ace was asleep and weak. In his state of near-uselessness, I couldn’t rely on his authority to control these pups anymore. I had no protection. I squeezed my eyes shut and braced myself against the wall.
A noise I had never heard before echoed through the room, one that sounded like a motor but that was too organic to be human. My grip on Slit was lost in an instant, and when I managed to open my eyes again, he was gone from my side.
The maniac was screaming and gurgling behind his mouth metal, crawling rabidly on his hands and knees with surprising speed and trying to clobber at Blackout with his remaining fist. The jostling was enough to bump Ace off of my shoulder with a snort from his part, but I couldn’t worry about the burn victim I had created. I had unleashed a monster.
“No! Slit, Slit, enough!” I roared, scrambling right after him and hooking my spindly arms around his shoulders and across his chest like a cross-body bag strap and attempting in vain to pull him away. Luckily, I didn’t have to move him very far. The sight of the machine-turned-demon was enough to get Blackout and the rest of the group scrambling backwards with raucous shouting and true disarray. Nothing like a carnal shock to the senses to get one feeling alive again.
His heart was roaring in his chest, rumbling a chaotic rhythm even as he relented and allowed his weight to drop backwards into my arms. I saw myself in his cloudy, distracted eyes- if infection hadn’t already reached his mind, it was making its way there, because even though he was still maintaining his strength, he was losing his place as a resident in his own being. He was twitching and growling softly, and though I pet him and whispered as softly as I could into his ear, it was as if he could only hear my words, not the meaning behind them.
Ace was awake beside me, but he didn’t say a word: he was either too weak to conjure up shouts and threats, or he thought they weren’t necessary. He was staring knives into the younger Boys, who were all shuffling in their spots under his gaze. Some of them recognized Ace and laced their fingers together, in that War Boy prayer stance I had almost forgotten, while others simply balled up their fists and turned their eyes to the ground.
Blackout was the only one of the Boys who was still brave enough to look up at the three of us, gazing wearily into our faces and showing his youth. He wasn’t much younger than me, but his ignorance was beaming and bright. He tried to turn his eyes away—scuffing his boots, adjusting his trousers, awkwardly rubbing the back of his head—but he seemed unable to keep his eyes from Ace for too long, like an ugly little hairless moth drawn to deadly lamplight.
“You… can’t stay,” Blackout said once he realized none of his fellow Boys was going to speak for him. He gestured awkwardly to the door with the back of his hand. “People’ll be comin’ soon. Cola rations and all that.”
I turned to Ace, but he just stared back at me in return, blank, thoughtful. He knew we hadn’t a chance of moving Slit in the state he was in, especially with his mouth shut as it was. If he could speak, he could tell us, at the very least, if we were hurting him. Cutting someone off from their ability to express their own pain was torture, torture that I had learned to endure at a young age. If we were going to take him somewhere safe, I needed to free him from the mouth metal.
I looked up at Blackout, who was sour-faced but attentive. This wriggling mass of a boy-man was my only hope.
“I—I need somethin’ that grabs good,” I expressed, holding up my thumb and fingers and making a deft pinching potion. “Somethin’ tough. Anyone got somethin’ like that? Anythin’?”
No one moved for a moment, and I looked to Ace again, now getting nervous. We needed to move soon, and no one was going to help us but ourselves. Luckily, he was sharp and attentive, now. Maybe the pain had finally settled in and was acting like a razor on his senses.
He pulled back his shoulder but didn’t do anything more. His age radiated authority.
“The lady asked you a question,” he said, rumbling like a storm, and within the blink of an eye, the small crowd was bustling awkwardly, all flying hands and nervous murmurs as they dug through the pouches of their tool belts.
Lady. There were many things I was, but lady was not one of them. I would have said something, but by the time I had found my bearings again, a showering of hands were being shoved at me, all clutching a variety of different tools. I was drowning in metal and worn down handles, as well as the sudden, total silence. I could hear distant voices forming outside the closed doors. We were running out of time.
I picked up a pair of plyers, with thin little pincers. They were the only tool I could recognize by name. Sometimes, when labour needed to be induced, Maude would take a long pair of plyers and prod up inside the mother to get her waters gushing. I hated doing it. A necessary evil, one of very many.
“You’re goin’ to need to hold ‘im,” Ace said, but I wasn’t really thinking. I had stopped thinking when I had grabbed the lantern to burn up his arms.
Slit was getting groggy. I knew it was going to hurt like a bitch to get them out again, so much skin was already healing over the staples, and I wasn’t going to have time to be gentle. Sweet boy. Poor sweet boy.
I laid him down on the ground again, and though his eyes were still open, I could easily guess by his dumbfounded expression that he saw absolutely nothing through them. His eyes were rolling over the crowd of younger men, who were putting tools away and slowly inching inwards, forming a tight circle around him.
Hands were falling. Falling and landing on him. Two, four, six, ten, sixteen. All holding this machine down, keeping this engine from running.
Soon, even without having to wear a coat of paint, Slit was covered in the white, to the point where he resembled some sort of spirit, maybe a glimpse of the past where he once proudly resided before someone set him on fire and made him lose it all.
He moaned at me and squirmed. Uncomfortable. He didn’t feel right. The animal part of him knew what was coming. I smiled at him, a fake smile I gave to dying mothers, and did what I had always done- I leaned over and kissed his forehead, tears in my eyes. I needed to hurt him to save him. Pain came before anything good. It needed to.
I pulled and slid the thin plyers between his lips in the metal.
For once in my life, I had seperated a man’s soul from his body.
Chapter 24: Chapter 23
Rush is back in business.
I had never kissed a soul in my youth, but I had seen the love of two mouths on one-another numerous times. The touch of lips was multi-faceted, like the patterning of rust on an old knife. The most common ones I saw were from mother to child; sweet, tender, the most genuine of love expressed in the brush of skin on skin. Others were hard, and full of passion, much rarer in the pressure of the Wasteland. The only passion folks had was for cola and grit, usually, but the occasional press of tongue against teeth could be found, too.
A memory of my youth haunted me like a restless spirit as I ripped the slivers of metal from Slit’s swollen, pulsing lips. It was simple, but poignant; Maude and Pa, curled together on one of their better days. They kissed eagerly, squeezed and gathered handfuls of soft flesh in their greedy fingers, huffed and rolled their hips. They smiled at each-other, and even though both of their eyes were closed, they seemed to know that the other was grinning. At one point, Pa snickered in the depth of his chest and slyly sunk his teeth into Maude’s bottom lip, which made her yelp and jump. She pulled away, drawing her full mouth away from the suction of his, before nudging her head beneath his chin to bite at his scruffy chin.
That action- the simple act of Maude pulling her mouth jokingly from his- stained the bloody sands of my mind as I watched Slit’s own pliable lips pull away harshly from the metal, which sickly mirrored what might have otherwise remained a tender reminder of better times. Small amounts of blood and sticky pus splattered like droplets of cola as his mouth bounced and his body bucked with the agony of ripping new parts out of an old engine. The boys around him gagged and swallowed their own bile as Slit’s saliva and sick poured from his lips, bubbling with the air he was desperately forcing in and out of his lungs. I worked quickly- I couldn’t afford to cut him off from oxygen for too long. The stink of his breath and his sweat rose as his mouth was further freed from the binds of fresh scar tissue and angry staples. I was inches from his face at any given time, and the heat of his previously stuffed breath and the power of his roars heated my face. I was sweating powerfully in a matter of minutes.
A tiny pile of eleven tacks had formed by Slit’s stump hand when his lips were free and loose. The sanctity of the perfectly painted white hands holding down Slit was tainted by yellowed pus and crimson blood; the young men around me pulled away and snarled with disgust, wiping themselves down or attempting to flick off the disgusting splatters in vain. I felt drops of Slit’s blood curling down my cheeks, but I did not wipe them away. I did not have the time.
I gathered Slit’s head in the crook of my arm and brought him to rest against my shoulder, where he irritably moaned and hissed with a gaping mouth. He was heavy, but he did not squirm or fight me like he would have done a few hundred days ago. Now, he seemed happy to be held.
The hand that was not clutching him around the shoulders rested on his chest, which was soft with dark, curly hair. The boys around me had forgotten about their duties to prepare the Watering Hole for business hours. They were now staring at me and the stormy man, seemingly in awe. The questions came eagerly with echoes of ‘chrome’ and even ‘witness’.
“Who did that to him?” they asked
“My people,” I said.
“Why not kill him?” they asked.
“There ain’t no joy in quick death for monsters,” I said.
“Why did you save him?” they asked.
“Because, otherwise, I would’ve been dead myself.”
Slit seemed to hear the compliments quite well despite his traumatized state. His lips, now sliced into several open, bleeding sections, in rows that resembled a mock skeletal structure, spread over his teeth in a drunken smile. Blood smeared across his brown chompers, forcing his flesh opened and flare out, loose bits of skin sticking this way and that. His lips look like two sides of an off-centered gear, terrifyingly so, and yet... I smiled and stroked his burning forehead with the back of my hand.
“...y’don’t know what’s comin’, sweetheart,” I crooned as cheerfully as I could, thinking only of the fever and tremors and possible death, but Slit only seemed to find more joy in my evident concern. Bloody saliva dribbled in fat globs from the corners of mouth, and his frustrated pants took on a new form with his upturned mouth. He reached up weakly with his free hand and touched his fingertips to those on his chest. Harder, he asked with his eyes, as he made a distracted rubbing motion across his chest. When I began to soothe him, the storm of the man fell silent, simply resorting to staring blankly out at the crowd of white limbs. He was satisfied, but I knew it would not last.
Once he was quieted enough to close his eyes, I turned my eyes to Ace, who was watching me from a few paces away. The younger men had cleared a space for him to watch us move, but his hard, wrinkled frown told me all I needed to know regarding his opinion of the interaction. I huffed softly and adjusted Slit’s head, as I would an infant.
“...he won’t be kickin’ for much longer than this, girlie,” he rumbled, and my fragile heart was swept instantly into the stifling breeze. “I wouldn’t bother.”
I clutched Slit close. No. Not after this long. Not another death. I wouldn’t let it happen.
“Y’don’t know that,” I snarled, unable to find my breath. I felt tears sting the back of my eyes. “How could yer tongue let somethin’ like that pass your teeth?! We got this far! I’ll bring him further!”
He held up a hand to calm me, but I pushed it aside with a firmer shake of my head. “I didn’t lose sleep for this, for y’to tell me t’leave him. Should I have left you?!”
“I’ve lived enough!” The sudden anger burst and shook the room, a verbal bomb, one that caused even the murmuring of the young folk around us stop abruptly.
He was only worried about me. I knew that. But it was the type of worry that kept a bird with a broken wing caged beyond its date of release; the worry that encouraged my father to hand me a knife before I had even come to find a more peaceful use for it; a fool’s worry. One that spurred the embers in me like a hot wind.
“Well I haven’t!” I roared, and tears spilled down my face. My skin boiled with their impact. “The only thing that’ll save the boy’s life is me! Take m’from that, and you’ll have murdered one of your own! I won’t listen! You’re not m’father, and you’re not Joe! I don’t wear your white!”
I raised my hand from Slit’s chest, made a fist, and brandished my dark-skinned arm like it was a weapon of war.
Ace did not recoil, but the young men reached for their belts in self-defence of my manic display of treachery. Blackout in particular seemed ready to do some harm; he made a point to kick out his boot, out of which a tiny blade protruded suddenly, like magic.
I got ready for blows. I arched my back over Slit’s chest and pressed my forehead to his to avoid him receiving any harsh blows to the face. I could smell the rank of his hot breath, as well as the metallic scent of blood and putrid aroma of pus. I breathed it in and squeezed my eyes shut against the smell and the world.
The sound of a fist pounding on the door stilled the brawl before it started. It was not impatient, but commanded authority. The knock was followed instantly by the door opening with a foreboding squeal. Whoever was behind it did not need to be welcomed in.
The sound of electric humming and the traction were paired with the rhythmic thump of boots, and the roar of the near-silence seemed to affect everyone in the room.
It was dark and cold when I entered the belly of the beast, and at the time, I hadn’t even realized I had been swallowed.
A man floating in a monstrosity of metal on wheels rolled in with the aid of a tiny fist, clutching what looked to be a tiny gearstick. I couldn’t tell at a distance whether this creature had a neck or not- he looked like a newborn babe but was clearly so aware and somberly adult that it put me off to the point of tremors. An infant in the seat of a god, with a full beard and scars to prove his age. Beside him marched a man built like a tower, thin and strong. He, too, was a sight to behold, but I feared and could not concentrate.
Why was a child staring back at me, a man who was stuck in the curse of a frail body? Why did he put his gaze on me? I felt my entire lower jaw tremble. My eyes must have been wide in their sockets, because this intelligent man-child looked upon me like I was nothing more than a girl. A girl who, I assumed, he had come to silence.
“You’ve been the one causing the trouble,” he said, in a pitched voice that rivalled mine in shrillness. Slit moaned in my arms, and I willfully gathered his bloodied face in my arms and slowly began rocking back and forth with him.
“No,” I said, and though my voice quivered I managed to steady my gaze. He rolled closer, parting the sea of boys that were hurrying to put their weapons away, an intimidation tactic he was winning from his height off the ground. His eyes were a startling blue. I squared my shoulders.
“No,” I said again. “Did the Wife tell y’that slander?”
His nose curled as he snorted, but he willfully chose not to answer my question. The man at his side stared into me, too. He was pale, and wore no paint, but he must have been young. The sun had not carved lines into the corners of his mouth or beside his dark eyes. The standing man looked between me and the man-child, and even put his gaze on Slit.
“Let me move her,” the standing man gruffly offered, but before I could let out a shriek of protest, the man-child waved his tiny hand and instead looked to Ace.
“You promised no difficulties,” the man-child said, and Ace bowed his head. If he had any hair to grow, I am sure he would have plowed his fingers through it, but his calloused fingers simply clung to the back of his neck and squeezed.
“She wasn’t always here,” Ace said bitterly. “It was the Wife’s idea. Said the Organic needed help. Said the Boys weren’t bein’ treated right.”
“You could have gotten rid of her,” the man-child snapped, but when the evident expression of horror melted into my features, he cleared his throat.
“...I could never hurt a little woman,” Ace said, and the edge of his voice shattered as he turned away and sobbed.
Ace had known. About how the Wife wanted to keep them there. And let them rot. The riot- Slit was never supposed to make it out alive. Everything Ace had done had been to either please those in charge or please me. If I hadn’t insisted, I wouldn’t have gotten the pliers to pull out his metal. I wouldn’t have gotten anything if Ace didn’t see something in me.
I reeled in disgust as the thought sank in, but I didn’t have enough time to let it settle. I was being told to stand, by someone. All eyes were on me. What would I do with the body of the only man who still wanted me alive?
I grit my teeth. I wouldn’t be fooled into leaving Slit again. Not while I still breathed.
I propped his limp body up against the wall; I tore the fabric of my skirt until the hair between my thighs was nearly on display. I wrapped the length once around his bottom and chest, linking him to me. I huffed and spat and hissed under the buckling of my knees.
Slit’s weight felt mountainous over mine, and I walked crouched. But I walked. I made wild eyes at Ace, the Boys, the standing man, the man-child.
“Where d’you want t’bury me next?” I seethed, and without hesitation, the man-child rolled his wheeling cart around and signaled for me to follow.
With the weight of the world on my back, I lived.
Chapter 25: Chapter 24
Rush learns to rise.
I had lived in shadows my whole life- even before I was born. Mag-Dala's legacy forced me to calculate my every waking move. I hadn’t an option to come home in the evenings without having found some sort of sip of water to consume or scrap to sell, lest I wanted to taste the worn, sandy leather of my father’s belt. She hung over me like the lazy ball of fire in the sky; she disappeared occasionally, was able to fade into darkness once I had the better distractions of stars and satellites to keep my attention elsewhere, but she always came back to burn me.
As I followed the rat of a tiny man on his electric wheel roll through the cracked doors, stalked closely by the beast that was his wall of a protector, I could feel Mag-Dala's breath heating my face as my sedate, agonizing steps dragged both Slit and I along. His prone body was both limp and stiff on my back. I had tied him to the curve of my spine so firmly that neither he nor I could move out of a half-curled position. This also meant that his remaining foot was dragging against the ground. Thankfully, I had tied him just high enough on my spine to keep his stump from getting ripped open on the stone floors. At least I had done that right.
I could hear movement behind me as I crossed the threshold leading to the larger, public hallway. The shuffling of trousers, tools, and loud grumbling that was slowly transforming into snarling and shoving was as familiar to me as blinking. Violence had become as intrinsic to me as the beating of my struggling blood pump. I attempted to turn to glance at the ruckus over my shoulder, but I was instead met with Slit’s hot breath filling my lungs between my own parted lips and a splatter of pus and blood against my face from his mouth. I hadn’t noticed it at the time, but his fluids were leaking down my shoulder and hitting the dry ground, leaving a trail of moisture behind us.
The yelling grew louder, and though I saw nothing but Slit’s bloodied teeth behind me, I knew who was causing the disturbance. It had to be Ace. Even after what he had done, he was still looking out for my best interest. Why? Who saves a snake from a getting cooked over a spit and then crushes it under their boot?
I turned around and paused in an attempt to hike Slit’s mass further up my body, but as I took a step, I lost my footing on the dry ground and nearly took a tumble. Had I fallen forward, I would have surely broken my nose. As I wobbled dangerously and leaned into my fate, I managed to jut out a spindly leg. Half of me was out the door, while the other was awkwardly stuck in a half-crouch in the Watering Hole.
Sweat poured into my eyes and made them burn and water, but even through my cracked, blurred lenses could I see the scornful faces of my prosecutors. Hundreds of people, hundreds of people who looked and smelled like I did, waited in herds to be allowed into the holy place from which I had emerged. Their lips were dry and cracked, limbs having long grown a tough second skin of dried mud to keep the sun from cooking them alive; their hair hung limp around their faces. The men huffed wildly and gnashed their teeth, and the woman were not far behind, though their eyes were ducking around the space for something to toss at me if I didn’t move quickly enough. Their eyes did not look at me, but through me.
I was not human, not to them. I was just something in the way. A temporary obstacle between themselves and relief of thirst.
Sprinkled in within the expanse of people were spots of creamy white, War Boys sticking out like serpents slithering through a storm. They, too, seemed unamused with my appearance. As the crowd grew restless with my lingering in the doorway, the War Boys were forced to act as peacekeepers, which they clearly weren’t used to. Babes just out of nappies, they were, babes with muscles to spare but just as naïve nonetheless. They didn’t realize that they were outnumbered, that the weak could still rip them apart like they did with Joe on that day... I had never seen so many people fight for a scrap of thigh meat.
I felt aqua cola begin to pool and spill over the barrier of my lids. Toothless roars and the smell of spoil choked me as my core trembled harshly with the exertion of standing again. My muscles rotted with the effort it took for me to drag my meager foot forwards, twitching and begging at me to cease and rest by throbbing dangerously in time with a vein travelling down my forehead. My lungs could barely expand under the combination of my own crumpled ribs against my folded knees and Slit’s weight against my back. In fact, I could feel gravity forcing my abdomen against my knees in a twisted folding maneuver. The whirring of the child-man's mechanical chair began fading... then paused. The entirety of the crowd’s collective gaze shifted to him.
I couldn’t see him, not when he had moved so quickly in his little seat. The squirming mass of people seemed to fall quiet in an instant when he turned to look over them. I could hear some hesitant whisperings. I’ve got milk. I know cars, know where to get guzz good and cheap. I promise, I’ll be useful, give me a chance.
Fucking shit-for-brains, the lot of them. They didn’t fucking know what they were getting in to. What the fuck did they think they were going to get through work? Reward? Good food and shelter from storms? Absolute fuckheads and cunts, that crowd. No one rose to the top like they did on the Lift, they were born there. All they had to do was keep others from pushing them off their pedestal when they dared to gaze down at those rusty ones crawling and licking their toes.
Crawling. I could crawl. I could still move. I didn’t need to stand. The weight would be bearable if I brought myself to my knees.
My skin scraped against my skin as I dropped to the ground with relief, not even able to hold back my squealing groan of satisfaction as I gave my joints a rest. But with the release of pressure and pain on my limbs came a worrying huff and drawn out moan from over my shoulder. I had forgotten the thing that I was carrying was a man, burned and scarred and two-limbed. The jostling was surely irritating him.
Now, I was stuck: I relaxed, and I couldn’t stand again. I had dug myself a comfortable grave. Between the growing irritation of the crowd, Slit fussing in my ear, and Ace still hollering his lungs out behind me... I couldn’t hear them swinging the doors open to their full capacity.
The folks around me tensed harshly, snapping like cracks of whipping thunder to attention, nearly falling over one-another as their eyes focused on the barrels of precious aqua cola within. They didn’t seem to notice the puddle of blood where Slit, Ace, and I had sat overnight, or the shocking scent of burnt flesh. I couldn’t blame them. Just because I had grown to ignore my thirst for the benefit of my Boys didn’t mean I wasn’t tempted by the promise of a wet tongue. Yet... not a soul took more than a handful of shuffling steps forwards. Like machines on timers, they all twisted their heads around to look at the little child-man and his person-shadow.
The person-shadow turned his attention to me, for a moment. He had so few facial scars- in fact, besides what looked to be a few pock-marks, his skin was completely clear of past injury. It was terrifying and ugly.
He raised his hand as preparing to strike me from his distance. In a way, he was. Before I could even find it in my aching bones to attempt to stand myself up again, he snapped his dry fingers.
The entire group shifted like a sand dune in the stormy wind, and I was moved with them like a pebble resting on the surface of their golden face. I screamed in terror and instinctively curled in as the crowd stumbled around me and over me. I tasted the sweat and flavours of others unwillingly- hair and dry skin brushed against my own, got behind my teeth, forcefully so. Even while I was being choked alive, I could pick up one common sound that was repeating over and over across the population of dehydrated folks causing Slit and I to be crushed alive.
Ace! Ace! Ace! Ace! Ace!
Why were these folks chanting for an old man they had probably never even met? What did one surprisingly long-lived War Boy have to do with their thirst? Through the relatively small gaps in the never-ending crowd, I found myself staring at the shadow-man's expression. It had changed drastically from one of solemnity to that of a child giddily at play. A group of women nearly old enough to be this man’s mother had thrown themselves joyously at his feet and were kissing any exposed skin they could find. They clawed viciously and even furiously bit one-another for their lips to brush against knuckle and fingernail. Through all the human wilderness, I could still read their lips.
Ace! Ace! Ace! Ace! Ace!
Even if someone hadn’t struck me in the ribs with their boot while the realization set in, I would have probably collapsed to my stomach regardless. All this time, I had been under the impression that I had known the Ace... but I had just known an Ace. He was just as replaceable as a tent spike in this city, risen from the sand up. All that I had built up all these hundreds of days, all the reputation I had earned... it had been taken away in an instant. Ace was no longer the Ace. The shadow-man was.
I hadn’t realized how gravely I was screaming until someone stepped on my hand and snarled at me to shut my trap. But I couldn’t stop, no matter what drugged rag was shoved against my mouth.
No. I would not be silenced again. I needed to get up. I wouldn’t be trampled.
Wheezing loudly to fill my lungs with air, I pounded the ground with my raw fists for a moment, before letting forth a bellow I’m sure even the Mother couldn’t ignore and shooting my hands up to the hands of the folks folded in tight around me. I cried, but my skin was hot with rage, and I could nearly feel myself glowing from the inside out. The man on my back was half-pinning me, but I scrambled to my knees regardless. I reached behind me, and with my hand, I grabbed Slit’s paw between my fingers and pulled that in the direction of the heavens, too. Who would dare and help the wild beggars, revolutionaries emerging from fallen barricades? Who would break for the likes of us?
People around us snarled and recoiled with disgust at our display. No one, none of my own people, the kin of my kin, dared touch the skin of their sister. One woman with sagging breasts that had seen the birth of multiple children even dared to holler at me, sightless poison in my ears, “Drop the man if you want to get somewhere!” I retaliated by harshly whipping my hand out to rip out a portion of her patchwork skirt.
This man is going nowhere, I said with soundless words, foaming at the mouth.
As the crowd began to thin out, as people collected their water rations and left, my heart pounded even more harshly when I realized that none of these downtrodden folks would lend their strength to build mine. I couldn’t be upset. I knew better than to mock the weaknesses I could still find in myself. So, with one final sweep over the crowd, I stuck the rag I had stolen from the woman in my mouth, bit down hard, and slowly began to rise.
I would always wonder, when looking back at that moment, if the Mother or whatever other gods were out there, found amusement in my struggle. I don’t think so- I was far too mad to be a joy and far too unrelenting to lend myself to the amusement of others. No, the gods probably assumed I was insane. I can’t help but say that I still chuckle at the prospect that that could possibly be true.
I nearly collapsed on my way up from the ground. Slit had now woken and was thrashing against me and threatening to clobber the forms around me with stray punches and kicks. One particularly rough jerk sent me stumbling- I shrieked and my knees collapsed on themselves, but I did not hit the ground.
A hand grabbed me tightly by the wrist.
The palm was rough and tight, but I was not staring at the hand. In my half-backwards bent position, I was staring exactly into my savior’s chest.
It was white, and a three-pronged star surrounded by a circle was carved into the left pectoral.
“...Joe, you got uglied up bad, smeg,” the voice said, deeper than I had remembered, but still pleasantly young.
My eyes squeezed shut, and when a wave of relief hit me, I was helped to the ground by a boy who was softer than the blue of the sky, and, who my delight, still forgot to paint a small spot beneath his chin.
Pit didn’t cry at the sight of me, as I had expected him to do, but instead nodded firmly in the direction of the shadow-man and began to unwrap the tight length of cloth that were connecting Slit and I together from around my belly.
“Don’t take him from me,” I begged around my rag as I removed it from between my lips, and though Pit didn’t respond, his gaze said everything. He would be safe, but I needed to go. I was awaited.
As Pit and I switched spots so that Slit could be moved to his back in the chaos, I managed to press my hand to his cheek before the natural pull of the crowd knocked me away.
The boy's skin was rough under his paint. I was proud to say that scars and stubble suited him well.
I nodded with approval at him and, despite my hair loss, wrapped the rag that had dampened with my saliva around my head of remaining hair. Its tightness soothed me, and funnily enough, Pit solemnly nodded back at me.
He knew he would be able to rise with me soon enough.
Chapter 26: Chapter 25
Rush is alone.
This chapter is dedicated to Quentin Kenihan, who passed away this last October and who played the fantastic Corpus Colossus. You have been witnessed.
Pa would keep me awake in the night with stories of Joe and his brood. He used to terrify me with the thought that the War Boys I grew up watching from afar, clinging to Maude’s legs, were all born and bred personally of Joe himself. Though his favourite wives were kept under the safety of the glass dome, he had hundreds of boys from other women: gardeners, artisans, labourers... The boys were kept and raised up to cover themselves in paint and serve their father, why else would they all gleefully call him ‘Daddy’? The girls were toasted and eaten.
When I began pup-catching, I knew these stories weren’t true. Most women couldn’t carry their pups to full term, and though I hadn’t a clue, I figured that most men couldn’t be any more fertile. My fears mellowed regarding Joe’s clan of boys, but two truths were spoken by my father during those chilly nights spent in the dark: the first was that the Joe did raise these boys, in one way or another, and he didn’t need to tuck them at sundown to leave his memory in their liquid minds.
The second? That the true spawn of Joe was much more terrifying than any stories my bastard of a father could ever whisper into my ear to get me to squirm.
I had to jog after the child-man to catch up with him, and my weak legs certainly had no patience to support the jangling of my bones. I had no clue where we were going, and I was scared. This man looked fragile, more so than I did, but I had a horrifying feeling that the power he wielded could strike me dead in seconds. Just because he was stuck sitting didn’t mean he couldn’t find a way to break my knees.
The shadow-man was still being fawned at by various women and men alike, all of which were eagerly clinging to his forearms and thighs as if he were a god. His scarless face was being worshipped, touched and pet, and I could see the eyes of multiple War Boys on him, too. Blackout and the shadow-man were exchanging looks that made my skin crawl. I turned away rapidly; such looks were exclusive and private, and despite how much I hated both of them, it was not my place to stare.
My skin puckered as I was marched through various empty corridors, halls that were much too silent for my liking. The whirring of the mechanical seat that the child-man rode in filled my head, the white noise of sand shifting during an ugly storm. He was purposefully taking me away from the eyes of the crowd.
I hadn’t thought about my knife in a long while, but dragging my feet towards my death made me ache for metal. I still had teeth, at the very least, the ones that the Wife hadn’t pulled. I wouldn’t be hurt again. I couldn’t.
I was led to a room with a solid metal door- similar to the one in the Blood Shed that had kept the Boys and I away from the freshness of air for hundreds of days- but it was cracked open just enough for the child-man to use his monstrosity of a vehicle to squeeze through the doorway. The door was propped at that specific angle with a pair of heavy stones. This was his place.
I lingered outside as he rolled in, disappearing into the sanctity of his safe space... I had never had one of those. No one could tell me that, even in the comforting embrace that Maude sometimes spared for my sake, I was free from danger.
I self-consciously reached for the edge of my hair wrap and tucked my baby hairs away in vain. Was I weak, or strong? I couldn’t tell. The only person that might know for sure was Ace. I clenched my teeth at the thought of him. There was no going back. He had chosen this path. One couldn’t follow their own footsteps backwards in the sand, lest they were determined to follow over or step on a snake.
“Come in,” the child-man yipped, and I consciously softened the clenching of my jaw. My time was now.
I stepped through the doorway.
The man-child's room seemed positively unreal, and I doubted that I could trust my senses anymore in a place like the Citadel. The space, dug into the rock and sporting a fine window, was larger than the Wives’ sleep spot... but it was empty. Besides a desk and a single chair in the middle of the room, there was nothing that signified that any being with a pulse had traipsed into this room. The room was cold and unfeeling despite the heat and the bite of stone under the soles of my feet.
He turned to face me, and my hands instantly flew to my chest. I hadn’t been alone with a man I didn’t know in a long time. It disgusted me.
“You’re not what I imagined y’to be,” he snapped, with a surprising amount of ferocity for someone who was so frail of being.
I swallowed hard. “...I’ve got a reputation, then?” I asked absently, feeling my hands begin to shake.
“Don’t be smart with me, girl,” the child-man growled. “You’ve caused me a heap of trouble I wouldn’t care t’experience again.”
“What did I do?!” I demanded, brows furrowing. “I took a job. What’s the matter with that?!”
“You think you were the first one t’get that position?” the child-man hissed, pointing a tiny finger at me past his barrelled chest. “The others left. Quietly absorbed back into the workforce where they belonged. No one wanted those fuckers. Why did you?”
I lost my breath and wheezed out a whimper. Someone had the gall to walk into that room, see those boys, and walk away?
“...the riot was planned, wasn’t it?”
I stared into the crystal eyes of the child-man, who suddenly sobered and huffed, glancing down and then away from me altogether. There was no pity or regret in his eyes. Just discomfort.
Pieces fell into place with a single turn of the child-man's gaze. When Ace couldn’t bring himself to kill me and let the rest of the War Boys die in their hole... they let the riot do it for them.
Planned obsolescence. Maude taught me that term when I was young. Something that was made shitty so that it could break and be replaced, all on purpose.
The War Boys were like that. I was like that. We both had always been like that.
“You’ll need t’leave.”
I didn’t take an instant to think. My shaking hands moved towards him, now, and for a moment my vision went black. I was shaking my head at the time, though I had no memory of it. I was shattering. Planned obsolescence was kicking in.
“N-No, no, no—I can’t, please, I need t’stay,” I squawked, hurrying towards him and dropping to my knees. He had nowhere to look, now, and nowhere to go.
I squeezed the arm of his chair firmly, much too terrified to touch his skin.
“You’ve been enough of an upstart already... the most I can give you is another hundred days,” he gruffed, prodding at my face to move me away from him. His entire palm could fit on a small section of my cheek.
“What about m’boy?!” I begged, frantically ripping off my head wrap. “I lost hair for him! He needs help!”
“He’ll go with you. He’s got no use here,” he said, cringing at the sight of me. Was I horrid to him?
“He can’t walk, y’bastard,” I snarled, pawing at the tears in my muddy eyes. “He don’t got what you got.”
I slammed a furious fist onto the side of the chair, and an equal amount of fury and terror lit up in his eyes.
“You’re lucky I’m lettin’ you live at all,” he barked, his pitched voice causing my ears to ache.
My blood boiled. I went blind.
“Live?” I spat in horror. “Y’stick folks with veterans of a shitty war y’didn’t even experience, expectin’ ‘em t’get away as soon as possible t’give folks the idea that you’re tryin’ t’help. Oh, yeah, you’re tryin’ real hard, y’fuckhead. Y’do it over ‘n over, drivin’ ‘em away each time, lettin’ ‘em spread the word about. How the War Boys are difficult an’ beastly, that they’re eatin’ others’ food and stealin’ cola outta the mouths o’babies. Gettin' people riled t’their cores ‘bout needy folks! Spreadin’ rumours in hopes that someone’ll get rid of ‘em before the sickness does! Why couldn’t y’train the fuckers, huh?! Teach ‘em in medicine like I was taught?! No, y’couldn’t, because that would take a lick o’human decency! Now, there’s two of ‘em left, two War Boys. One of ‘em’s gonna die of age anyways, and the other?! Oh, might as well be merciful an’ let him crawl t’death!”
I was panting, sweating too. The stubble on the child-man's face twitched as he contemplated my words. I had him in a corner. He knew I was right.
“...I’m followin’ orders. Nothin’ more.”
My voice coated and broke the walls of the empty room, and I heard it pang pitifully in a shriek off the metal door.
The child-man looked at me. He was so smart. Anyone even a touch duller than him would have tried to give me an answer.
The question had too many facets. Why what? Why was I being abandoned? Why was he being so cruel? Why did no one ever want to stay with me? Why did everything I love have to die or try and kill me?
The child-man looked at me. They always just looked.
“One hundred days,” he said, and with a jerk of his chair he pushed me off him.
I heard his chair wheel away as I stayed on the floor, staring at the trails his wheels had left behind.
It was over. I was over. I had gained nothing. I was going home. All I had to show for my time here was a ruined man.
I tried to get up, used the chair to get myself to my feet. It wobbled under me.
I felt the leg of the chair snap.
My heart blared in my ears, thumping so rapidly that it nearly resembled a howling wind.
Enough. Enough. Enough. Enough...! Enough! ENOUGH!
I grabbed the back of the chair and screamed loudly enough to reach the Mother.
I threw the chair through the window. It shattered the glass.
Fragments glistened beautifully as they hit the ground and fell through the air, going down, down, down. Perhaps the fragments of glass and wood would hit some poor pedestrian and kill them where they stood. I envied that quick release from here, that sweet deliverance.
Ace had rejected me long ago; Pit was busy caring for another, one who needed his help much more than I; Maude could be dead, I could have just killed her. Who would save me from myself now?
The sun blinded me as I approached the window. Glass cut my bare feet. There was no use for jumping. The boy was still breathing. If Slit breathed, then I would breathe.
The sky was a brilliant blue, the sand a warm gold. How long had it been since I had seen the sun? It felt like a lifetime.
I knelt in the glass and pressed my forehead to the ground. I felt a sharp shard slice harshly through my eyebrow, and a trickle of blood painted the floor. I let it soak the rock below; I had no other offerings to give to the Mother.
I prayed loudly, shouted my praises.
Suddenly, it felt good to be small.
Chapter 27: Chapter 26
Rush is reunited.
Two chapter-week due to an insane amount of free time and inspiration. Enjoy.
The day I earned my scars was one that began like any other, with a stark difference that separated it from any other morning in recent memory: it was freezing. My little arms were wrapped tightly around my ribs, knees tucked tight, and I recall whimpering softly. Maude, ever the sensitive type, always seemed to know when something dark was afoot. She took a moment from her morning routine to climb into the sandy spot where we slept to gather me in her lap. I was a bony thing, still am, and Maude didn’t enjoy holding me as I grew. Sharp as a dog’s tooth, girlie, she often groaned before shoving me away. But that morning... I was rocked and pet and called lovely, lovely, lovely. I was too young and groggy to notice the strange attachment Maude was presenting, and I didn’t question it at the time. Instead, I buried my face by her breasts and tried to go back to sleep while listening to the pumping of her blood in her chest. I was comfortable.
I drowsed for a few moments, but soon, Pa had grabbed me by the arm and shaken me awake. Maude clung harshly to me for a moment, pressed her tender lips to my scalp, and gave me over to my father. It was only then that I opened my eyes.
Pa carried me past the towers with green hair and into the sandy wastes, and for a moment, I wondered if we were going to visit a wreck. Pa always seemed to know if a car or cycle had been crushed in war or hit by lightning before all others, and he encouraged me to come along if Maude didn’t have work for me. Smaller hands always made quicker work of twisted-up heaps of metal. I raised my voice to ask him where we were going. I got no answer.
I was sat down. I was told to wait. I shivered in the cold.
The cold didn’t last.
I was grabbed by the chin, mouth forced open. The knife touched me before the knife did.
I must have screamed. I must have. But I don’t remember.
I woke up again in Maude’s arms, but I couldn’t open my eyes. I tried to scream, but it hurt too badly. I moaned instead, cried. My tears made my face burn.
I thought I was crying fire.
I don’t remember who heard or came to fetch me once nightfall came, in the child-man's little room; I must have been curled on the ground for hours. Blood had clotted my vision severely, leaving me half-blind in one eye. Despite how my eyes uncontrollably watered, I couldn’t seem to remove the dried blood from behind my lid. I blinked harshly through the motions of my body being moved. I was hollered at to rise, prodded with a boot to assure I was still alive, picked up, and forcefully marched away from the splinters of glass.
I was being carried everywhere, it seemed. If I closed my eyes for long enough, I could imagine myself walking. I could feel the pressure on my bare feet and the texture of sand under my toenails. How long had I been doing this for? Thinking I was moving when I was getting moved... or simply going nowhere at all?
I was thrown to the floor, and I smashed my skull against the harsh ground. Luckily, I fell on my hairier side, and my brains didn’t get too rattled. I opened my good eye.
A figure loomed over me, back hunched, shoulders slumped, hands on knees; the boots made me think it might have been Ace, and I nearly vomited my blood pump out onto the stone. The state of the laces comforted me. They were new. Ace hadn’t had the luxury of new laces on his boots in a long while.
Sweet brown eyes met mine when the figure dropped to his knees, and I nearly sobbed when he came into view. Tender Pit.
I was not used to seeing him after so long. He had grown, shot up in height and lost his baby fat. He had even begun to grow whiskers, which I reached out to touch. His smile wasn’t as grand and open as it used to be, but he still flashed his pretty teeth at me. Lovely boy.
“I’ve been lookin’ all over for you,” he said, reaching out in turn to touch the cut in my eyebrow.
When I hissed harshly at the touch, he lost his grin. All he could find in himself to do was give my naked skull a gentle knock with his knuckles. Was he asking to be let in? The contact made me wince, and reminded me of a time when I could suffer much worse at the hand of a much less gentle soul.
“...where’s the bloodied one?” I rasped, and somehow, Pit’s expression even further sobered.
He grumbled something below his breath, unintelligible and foreign, and stood up slowly, not out of discomfort but out of annoyance.
“Piece of shit’s been hollerin’ for you for a while. Only reason we found out where you were was ‘cause no one could get him t’shut his trap,” Pit moaned, taking me gingerly beneath my crooked elbows and dragging me to my feet. “He pissed on a fucker. Emptied his entire tank on a man t’spite him! And he laughed!”
I smiled mildly.
“Ah,” I said. “He’s in good spirits.”
I stumbled clumsily back into Pit’s chest when he lifted my weight, easily so. I slumped backwards and nearly fell over, clearly rattled by the sheer force of the toss, but he didn’t fuss. He wrapped his arm around my waist and slowly began waddle-walking me back down the hall. I appreciated that he didn’t put me on his hip like I was a mere pup.
As we tread through the darkness and back into more familiar halls, I could hear Pit subtly snuffling at the top of my head. That youthful curiosity and lack of tact hadn’t evaded him. He not-so-subtly gagged at my stench, but tried to be suave about it. He pulled away, concentrated on walking me a few more steps, then spoke up.
“Your friend, uh... he needs a soak,” he drawled, his fingers on my belly tapping away absently at the stretched skin. “If I get some cola, you could prob’ly...”
“I know I reek worse than Wretched roadkill at noontime. Y’could bare t’be more sensitive... Y’know what Ace called me? A lady, the Ace called me that.”
I adored feeling Pit pause, squirm, and soften his grip around me. What a delightful creature.
“Naw, naw, I know! I know you’re a lady! Cripes, I just meant... Damn, did y’really meet the Ace?”
“Pretty boy, I met both of ‘em.”
Our rather simple walk was hallucinogenic in quality; shadows warped and waved at the corners of my vision, and I felt as if I was walking entire deserts in just a few steps. We came to a set of stairs at one point or another, that much I knew; I tried to get up and onto the harsh first step, but the wobbling of my legs must have worried Pit. He picked me up, and even though I initially tried to fight him, screaming and wiggling, memories blended into reality... and I thought of Maude.
She had held me for a good three-dozen days after I had been sliced. She had mashed up food, even gotten me a bottle of milk on my first terrible night with my swollen face. I couldn’t even suck, let alone drink. Maude had to give me the milk drop by drop. Pa even had it in him to scrounge together enough scrap to get me a length of frayed ribbon. He braided the hank of hair for me.
My feet were on the ground again, but the texture of the ground was different, not like anything I had ever known before. The floor was stone, of course, but just above it, between my soles and the unforgiving rock, was something new, wet but dry and also loose. I looked down: brown, loose. Sand? Perhaps. Nearly felt like mud.
I heard Slit before I saw him.
Low moaning, pitched on a repetitive loop, and then rabid wailing. There was another set of stairs at the end of the hall, and four rooms on either side of the tiny hallway. There was a draft, but I was warm.
I threw down the hands caressing my ribs and ran.
The door to Slit’s new prison wasn’t a door at all, but a drape hanging from a bar. I yanked it open in my frantic state, but what I saw was not a collection of bitter War Boys. Though, I could have guessed as much from the noise. Besides Slit’s screaming... there was nearly nothing.
Yes, I pulled back the drape, and I did not see War Boys. I saw people.
Two women and a lone man sat poised around a wriggling hill of blankets and rags, clearly exhausted from holding the noisy, hissing snake of a man down. They all were richly dark-skinned, the older woman so much so that only the whites of her eyes stuck out at me when she turned to stare my way. She must have been in the sun for years... all of them must have been.
The young man had a babe in his lap, one that didn’t notice me at all but that I noticed well. The swollen eye was a tell-tale sign. Her facial tumour looked like it had grown with her.
“Mary?” I breathed.
The older woman jumped and snarled at the sound of the little one’s name.
“You ain’t takin’ her away, too, heathen bitch!” she yowled.
“Silks! That’s enough!” the younger woman barked, shoving roughly at Silks’ shoulder before turning to me and waving me inside. “Come along, girl, come along. Speak t’this beastie o’yours before he bites off his own tongue!”
I didn’t move until I felt Pit at my back. He gave my shoulder a pat, which coaxed me into striding slowly towards Slit.
He was unwell, but there was something lovely and new in his eyes. In the few hours that I had been separated from him, he seemed to have regained a touch of clarity. Oh, but he was still so disgusting. His entire face was wrapped sloppily in bandages, his mouth swollen and crusted with dry blood and pus, his blue, blinking eyes and rasping breath being the only thing that alerted me to the fact that he wasn’t yet dead.
He focused on me, puffed and groaned, but managed a gut-tossing grin. His teeth were miscoloured; they looked stained with blood. His skin was oily, along with his hair, and his beard was a mess of matted tufts. He reeked of rotting flesh, possibly worse than I did (oh, his breath could make the Mother herself chunder)… but he smiled nonetheless.
“...ugly rat bastard, were y’givin’ folks trouble while I was gone?” I crooned, and he greedily reached up with his remaining hand to touch my head.
I leaned down to let his fingers brush the exposed skin, my braid curling against the floor. He was positively delighted in the change. Familiarity made his eyes double-shine.
“...half-chrome,” he declared, and I couldn’t help but snicker at him. Opinionated little brat.
“Chromer than you, War Toy,” I said, and his hand weakly shoved at my skull.
The folks around me seemed to deflate at the sight of our playful banter, all leaning back on their hands to take a breath.
“You tellin’ me all we needed t’do t’get him t’listen was insult the fucker?!” the lone man exclaimed with despair, though his eyes were grateful. They were a brilliant, beady black, like crow’s eyes.
“He’s simple that way,” I agreed, and gave Slit’s beard a scratch. Of course, he still snarled and spat and glared daggers at the others, but he seemed to tolerate my presence.
The older woman, Silks, shook her head dismissively, glared at Pit as if he had brought a virus into the tiny space (the poor boy could only shrug and blush), and turned her eyes to me.
“Some water’ll do you well. The rabid one, too. You both smell like hot shit on asphalt.”
I flushed, tried to think of something clever to say, but before long, I was being grabbed harshly by the arm and yanked away from Slit. The old woman was busily pressing a length of cloth to the mouth of a calabash of cola, glancing between me, Pit, Slit. She seemed to have no concept of manners or social cues, maybe she was too old for that, but I suddenly felt as if I was being pup-sat again. My arm was yanked out, and like thunder over the plains, the rag began to violently scrub the surface of my skin.
“Ow! What the—no! You’re peelin’ me!” I roared, furiously trying to pull away from Silks’ grip. Everyone, including her, shushed me violently. There had been enough noise for one day.
“Better peeled than eaten straight out’a the earth, you disgusting radish-child. You’ll be clean in my house!”
“Nah, fuck you!”
Our conversation ended there. I glanced at Slit. He was laughing at me, being babied by a stranger- that is, until Mary yanked a piece of his dark hair to quiet him. Someone had trained that girl well.
Pit ruffled my hair while I was distracted, and despite my love for him, I nearly tore a finger off.
I didn’t have the heart to ask what a radish was.
Chapter 28: Chapter 27
Rush is allowed to stay.
Silks forced me to wash every damn day I was with her.
I had often neglected to do so before I had joined Silks' little crew, being as focused as I was on the personal hygiene of my own squadron of Boys, but now that most were gone, Silks had no reason to allow me to keep neglecting myself.
She would pull me from sleep in the wee hours of the morning when she would wake, restless and with nothing to do, would stick me between her old legs, and would start dousing me with lukewarm cola. She often made commentary while she did it, too- there's a reason you’ve got nothing but half a head of hair, or imagine how pretty you’d be with a crustless mug! The latter statement always got me sour and uncomfortable, and after whacking her in the calf a right couple of times with my dry palm, she refrained from scolding me, if only a touch.
I don’t believe I had ever been cleaner in the entire span of my short life. It confused me. Why would someone who had lived as long as Silks had, someone who had seen the nastiness of the Wastes, had countless wrinkles to show her history... Why would she share cola with me?
I rarely had time to question anything, at least before the others. I had hours alone with Slit during the long days, in that storeroom, surrounded by rakes and shovels and pails, gloves and wide-brimmed hats- the others, even old Silks, would take some of these things, and disappear up a set of stairs at the end of the hall. There, I was told, they would cross a long outdoor bridge to another one of the towers.
In the evenings, they, along with dozens of other folks who lived in the rooms besides our own, brought back green paper things like I had seen outside of the room with the round door in full, heavy buckets. I never got to eat anything they brought back. They washed the greens, and then the man- Gazette- would stuff them all into a large canvas bag and bring them somewhere to be counted. After a long five-day cycle, they would have green things to munch. I had never accepted their offerings of food, I had already taken too much. I was happy in listening to the pleasant sound the green paper made between teeth. Crunch, crunch, crunch...
Slit got my portion of green paper instead. I cut the veiny sheets up into small pieces, rolled them up like blankets, and placed them at the back of his mouth, between his molars. The green paper was soft enough for him to rip up without moving his injured face too badly, but the crack and snap of the texture delighted him and gave him something to focus on besides his poor lips.
He was losing weight, muscle too, and he seemed to notice it just as swiftly as I did. He squirmed in his spot and had taken to sitting up in his seat all day to avoid getting completely atrophied. Billy, Gazette’s lady, kept insisting that she would find something more sustainable to feed Slit outside of their meager rations. Though, the groaning glare and roll of her eyes she’d give ever time Slit fussed or fought them for space and privacy told me all I needed to know. Her generosity would run out eventually.
Mary seemed to be the only one who delighted in Slit’s condition. As she was too young to work and the rest of her clan always seemed distracted with their own trappings, bothering Slit had brought her a strange joy that I couldn’t quite quantify. She dug her wee wrigglers in his beard, tugged on hair, yanked on bandages and crawled all over his lap.
Every day was the same. Time crawled by; I etched the number of passing days into the stone on the ground by Slit’s bedside after my bath with the point of a pair of scissors I would use to snip Slit’s bandages. Silks watched me constantly.
“...quit that, you’ll dull ‘em,” Silks whisper-shouted at me. The old one certainly couldn’t see me scratching at the floor in the near dark, but I didn’t doubt she could hear it.
“Can’t get much duller than they already are,” I said, glancing over my shoulder and the pile of bodies at Silks.
She was fussing with her hair, the skin of her arms sagging in the dim light, flapping like wings. Wherever she had come from, it had made her vain. She prettied herself up only to get all dirtied up again by the end of the day.
She must have seen the gleam of the scissor blades or the shine of my eyes, because she looked at me and stared for a spell as she pulled her black-grey hair against her scalp. She was beginning to lose it in patches.
“...you’re an awful handsome thing, ain’t ya?” she drawled, and my throat tightened despite myself. “Y’could be plenty useful, somewhere outta here. Ol’ Wives got this place locked up tight from call girls. Out towards Gastown, though... Mmm. Someone’d pay a pretty penny for’ya.”
I closed the scissors and released a shaky sigh. I felt cold, all of a sudden. I covered the bald side of my head with my open palm.
I heard Silks huff and waddle over, if only to lean down and gaze down at me, coming within several inches of my face. Her bright white eyes were terrifying, slowly beginning to glaze over with cloudy splotches. All those days in the sun had ruined her.
She smiled and took me firmly by the chin, chuckling. She still had most of her teeth, save her two fronties, but her canines were sharp and present.
“I could bring you somewhere where those scars don’t matter.” Silks’ half-blind eyes gleamed.
My hand was violently shoving at her wrist before I could even think to squirm and shake. The old woman delighted in my reaction: she snickered and cooed like I was a flailing pup avoiding a changing before gently releasing me. Loony bitch.
“...they don’t matter here,” I huffed, regaining a touch of confidence as I rubbed my sore face.
Silks chuckled and took a seat beside me; it was rare to see her smile, so I attempted not to flinch when she cupped her hand around the back of my head and stroked me there.
“Not when yer layin’ next to a boy made up of nothin’ but scars,” she corrected, her face souring as she stretched a leg out to prod Slit in the ribs with the toe of her boot.
Slit did nothing but puff out a groan and smack at the shoe. It was still too early for him to care much about anything.
“I could take y’some place where folks’ll choose not to notice those ugly bits. No thought, or comparison. Just yer prettiness,” she said.
“Prettiness gets folks in trouble,” I said with a shake of my head. “Got me in trouble.”
Silks sighed and stroked my hair, in a way Maude might have once done. That made me recoil and glare at her.
“Why?” I demanded, and Silks raised her wrinkled palms in my direction with a shake of her head.
“I can’t tell you why men are usually absolute shitheads. Well. Most folks are, nowadays,” she said.
I rolled my eyes and scoffed when she began cackling at her own little joke. Mother almighty, I could sew her lips up just as I had done with Slit’s. It might make her shrieking laughter die for at least a few moments.
“I mean the room,” I said over the noise; I was instantly hushed by Gazette, who I scoffed at as she curled and cuddled up around Billy, who was snoring just as loudly as Silks’ cackling. His selective hearing would be the end of me. He was a cunt in a half in the mornings.
Silks wiped some tears from her eyes with a roughened knuckle and waved me on to continue with her spare hand between her trembling, dying laughter.
“The room,” I said, voice dropping to a whisper. “This room... What did Pit do? Why’re y’lettin’ us stay? Don’t make sense. I’m-- we, Slit and I—we're strangers.”
Silks’ smile fell a touch, and she sat up slightly, her blinding gaze wandering off to the space between Slit and Gazette. There, tiny Mary was asleep, limbs all akimbo beneath her blanket and a slobbering thumb stuck in her mouth. Her free hand was clinging to the back of Gazette’s shirt, and I could hear the subtle movement of her tongue against her finger. Poor pup hadn’t been weaned well enough, it seemed, or she at least didn’t appreciate the separation.
“...she’s mine, you know,” Silks said, cocking her chin at Mary. “Got her blood in me, mine in her. Doesn’t look it, but it’s true. My daughter’s daughter.”
I tried to peer at Mary in the pale morning light, but I didn’t need to. I knew how different she looked from memory, facial mass aside.
“I was meant to fetch her, that day. That day when you brought her up. Heard through the grapevine that she was bein’ sent up.”
Silks cracked her neck and rubbed her shoulder ashamedly. Her memory must have escaped her, there would be no other reason for her not to fetch the blood of her blood. Age was like a toothache- it only got more noticeable over time. Silks didn’t seem the type to accept that. She had probably been stifling the pain for years.
“Ah... but shit happens, she got passed along first. But after the riot... well, in the chaos, I was able to snatch her back up again.”
Her eyes shifted to Slit, and she shrugged at him, and then at me.
“Pit... well. Pit made have started this, but he had the balls to intervene and help us when we sought him out. That boy kept my girl from getting tossed in a dog-fighting ring against other pups like her.”
Silks’ ferocity crossed her eyes for the briefest of moments, and her fists seized up in her lap. She looked at me.
“They fed the dead ones to the live ones. When Pit found her... they were thinking about cookin’ her on the spot. Other pups we hungry and, well... tumors have got a nice chew to ‘em.”
My blood ran cold and my breath grew dry. I couldn’t help but heave slightly and cover my mouth.
Silks reached out and pat the base of my neck reassuringly, tutting every so often.
“...when Pit asked for a pair of friends to stay, we couldn’t say no,” Silks said, helping me sit back up with a hand beneath my elbow. “That boy got beaten half to death for my Mary.”
“He didn’t tell m’so much,” I said, aching to hold poor Pit. Whatever he had seen was warranting of some fresh facial hair and a few more inches. Sweet and naïve as he was, that would shock him into manhood right quick.
“He’s a lovely thing. You’ll keep that boy around if you’ve got any grey matter between your ears.”
Silks and I both seemed to turn to face Slit at that same moment, and Silks pursed her lips and drew her eyes across his ugly face.
“...he may be a bit young, but really, girl? Pit surely can’t be that awful t’look at. This piece of meat over Pit?”
I snorted and reached out to take Slit’s hand. I had a sinking feeling that he could hear him, and my heart couldn’t help but go out to my ugly War Toy.
“He isn’t so horrid,” I said, but Silks didn’t seem convinced. She simply got to her achy feet and wiped her hands on her thighs.
“A piece of advice?” she said, cocking her head at Slit. “Don’t let your happiness rely on no one else but you. A smile won’t make a life.”
My brows furrowed at that as I stared into Slit’s sleeping face. The man I had been taking care of for months was not the man that fought in the Road War. I might have created a sleeping beast, and I would have no idea how I would sneak out of his den with my life once he woke up.
I placed his hand down and got up to follow Silks. There was surely other work to be done.
Chapter 29: Chapter 28
Rush and Billy have a chat.
I was glad to be made to feel useful again, around Silks’ crew.
There was always a lot of work, but it was work I had never experienced. I spent my days with Slit, and after a while, Billy and Gazette allowed me to participate in their little sorting ritual when they had the green paper bundles.
The bundles weren’t always green- sometimes, they weren’t bundles at all. They came in little brown packages with white spikes growing out of them, or long, sunset-orange cones with long tufts of hair on the top. As Slit’s lips drained of his infection and healed gradually over the course of twenty-two days, he got to eat the green things from the gardens I was never permitted to visit.
Every time Gazette and Billy permitted some foodstuffs, it was pure excitement. Day twenty-four offered a surprise, little red, slap-coloured things that tasted like all the good parts of milk without all the fattiness. I was given three tiny specimens and ate all of them selfishly.
Billy smiled at me, showing me her missing front tooth, smothered in rosy juices.
“You like that, girl?” she asked, turning her eyes back to her work, sorting through the soft things.
She kept plucking out the things from the bowl in her lap, setting aside the rotting or tiny ones in a separate pile on the floor, which the whole group ate from with much vigor. Seated in a circle, wearing nothing but holed-up socks, a lamp kept the darkness away instead of a fire burning Before-Time trash. There was a pleasant-sour smell in the air, body odour and something else, and everyone was tired but pleased in the knowledge that all would be done soon. Even Slit, in his reluctance to interact with everyone but me, sat up and scooted into the circle to delight in the juicy blood things. He cradled his stump close to his belly in a way the mirrored Silks clutched a sleepy Mary to her chest, who was liking her plush little lips in her sleep, tasting sweetness that wasn’t there.
I nodded enthusiastically at Billy’s not-so-real question, and Gazette looked up grinned, too. I liked Gazette. His warm eyes made me feel chrome when they looked at me.
“Mmm. Real good... bet they’d be better if I got t’ help pick ‘em,” I said, prodding Gazette in the knee. “I’ve got clever fingers!”
Gazette snorted and shoved my fingers away, coaxing a dramatic groan out of me.
“Green Guards wouldn’t allow somethin’ like you int’the gardens, not without proper marks,” he said, rolling up his sleeve.
There, etched into the skin of his forearm, was a complicated pattern of lines reaching up towards his elbow from a narrow rectangular shape. I couldn’t help but reach over and touch that pattern, feeling the raised ridges.
“...this isn’t mechanical,” I noted, but before Gazette could clarify the symbol, Slit snorted from behind me.
“It’s mediocre, that’s what it is,” Slit scoffed. “Green matter. Nothing reliable. It all rots and dies.”
“Mediocre?” Gazette echoed, firmly snapping his jaw shut. “Mediocre is what feeds your ass, you limp switchblade. Have some manners.”
“Don’t make me think up some new, fun way to choke you, rothead,” Slit growled, and I saw his remaining hand twitch into a fist in its place supporting him against the floor.
“I could bury you and no one would know. Try me, try me!” Gazette barked, and before a hand could even lurch out in a swat, Silks loudly shushed the pair of them.
“The baby is sleeping,” Silks seethed. “Eat, work, or shut yer fuckin’ mouths.”
I didn’t have to say a thing to add to Silks’ scolding; I simply clapped a hand over Slit’s bicep and shoved him back and away from Gazette.
Slit’s temporary lapse of comprehension due to disease, in hindsight, was easier to manage than him conscious and active. He was being a terror, a demon who screamed and bit anyone who didn’t worship him.
Billy was the one to break the silence. She noticed my fury, reached out across Gazette’s lap and lovingly rubbed my arm.
“...how’s about I bring you back somethin’ with more bite than berries? Some meat?” she asked. “You look as if you’re wasting away, lately.”
Whether he noticed it or not with his single good eye and dulled senses, I, at least, could feel all eyes turn to the man seated at my left. No one cared about being obvious anymore.
“No secret why,” Gazette murmured, and that earned him his own thwack in the arm on Billy’s part.
Nothing more was spoken. After a few more swift minutes of final sorting, Gazette and Billy packed their little crimson berries up into containers, each taking one, before insisting they would be back soon. That left me, Slit, and Silks alone, staring at one-another.
Every night ended like this- a fight, a disagreement, some silence, sleep. I was getting tired of being questioned. I had enough to worry about as is. I only had so many days until I had to go... somewhere.
“Why d’you have t’act like that?” I snapped.
Slit barely took notice of me speaking at first. It wasn’t until I reached out and yanked firmly on a strand of his hair that he snarled and pulled away from me.
“Don’t ignore me! Why do y’antagonize everyone?!”
“So what if I do?!” Slit demanded. “That bastard knows he can get away with yellin’ at me, but me at him?! That’s what makes you sour?!”
“That bastard is lettin’ us stay as guests in his home! I would think t’be kinder! What is the matter with you?! What can’t y’see?!”
“This is temporary!” he exploded, his scarred lips twisting as he got within inches of my face.
We breathed heavily into each-other's faces, so close that I could count every single pock mark in his lips.
“This isn’t going to end in anything good. I am useless. I can’t stand. I am going to end up rotting somewhere, probably used to make green fodder grow in those gardens you so badly want to see. I look like a fucking feral, worse than you! Who’s going to want me after this?! How will I work?! At least you’ve got hands! Feet!”
He prodded me harshly in the chest, making my ribs quiver and my muscles ache. That got Silks involved; she growled and yanked on Slit’s shoulder, warning him firmly to leave me be, but he simply jerked himself away, which yanked Mary right from her slumber. Baby cries filled the air.
“They’re letting us stay, until what?” Slit asked. “I have nowhere to go! I have nothing! I am nothing!”
His hand snatched my wrist hard and squeezed.
“And you are, too.”
No. No, no, no, no--
Another hand, two, three, four.
“It’s okay, baby, it’s okay! Everything’s okay!”
I was convinced Silks was talking to Mary, because everything was loud and chaotic and there was too much noise around me to make much sense of anything. But everything was cold, and my knees were clacking together. Night must have fallen.
I was being smothered against a chest, and I didn’t realize I was crying until I felt the moisture of wet fabric under my face. An arm was clasped around my waist, and a hand was folded tightly across the back of my head.
Billy. It was Billy. Gazette was screaming in time with Silks, but Billy was whispering in my ear and telling me that it was done. It? What was it?
“It’s alright, darling. No more tears... hey, how’s about some meat? You want mutt?”
I don’t recall nodding, but I was led outside anyways and was sat on my bottom in the hallway. I still heard screaming, but instead of letting me hear, Billy just pressed my head against her chest and clapped her hand over my exposed ear, muffling the noise.
Fresh roasted something was shoved in my mouth. Billy called it mutt, but I knew there weren’t mutts around the Citadel, around anywhere anymore. Whatever. It tasted nice.
I must have spent hours in the hall with Billy, eating, crying, being held. She placed me between her knees and even kissed the crown of my head.
She cooed over the state of my wrist, too. It was turning all kinds of complicated colours and swelling up horribly. Fuck.
“You don’t have t’take care o’him, don’t you know that?”
I looked up. Billy was tenderly rubbing my wrist, but her eyes were hard. The world was quiet around us. A lantern had appeared next to us; Billy looked exhausted.
I sat up, moved away a touch. Billy looked pretty in lamplight. I could see why Gazette was so fond of her.
“Where else would he go? Who else would?” I asked, and Billy clicked her tongue and rolled her eyes.
“Does it matter? You have more important things t’worry about. Where will you go, when your hundred days are up?”
My brows furrowed.
“Who told y’about...?”
“Pit,” she said. “Bless him, but that boy couldn’t keep his mouth shut t’save his life. Besides, we needed t’know. Your stay... it could have never lasted forever.”
I grimaced and nodded, instinctively reaching for my remaining hair and pulling it from my face.
“I never thanked y’for letting m’hang around. Slit, neither.”
Billy hummed and touched a strand of her own dark hair, which was oily with sweat. Silks would surely rectify that by morning.
I had never noticed that Billy’s skin was freckled. I reached out and touched the splattered, light-brown stars on her collarbone. Her frown turned warm and liquid.
“...aw, you’re not so bad, girl,” she said, poking the scar above my upper lip. “Your friend, though? He needs correcting.”
I shrugged and looked towards the stairs that lead to the gardens. How much longer could I live? Was he the only reason I was living at all?
How much could I forgive?
“Do y’know anyone that could fix Slit a fake foot?” I asked, and Billy raised her eyebrows in shock.
“You’re joking,” she gawked. “The man nearly snapped your arm off, and you want t’reward him?! You’re manic!”
“I’m practical,” I said. “He wants to leave, he needs to go. I’m just giving him the chance t’do something with himself.”
“The boy shouldn’t have lived, let alone given the chance t’walk. You’re too good to him, he’ll take advantage o’that.”
I shrugged. It wouldn’t have been the first time. And now, I had people who wouldn’t let anything happen to me if shit went sideways. I knew I would be alright.
“...well?” I asked again. “Do y’know anyone?”
“Pit could probably build it right proper for us, but we don’t have parts to give him. Gazette could surely trade for some, but...”
“No. I’ve asked enough from you. I can work.”
Something sour invaded Billy’s eyes, and she turned her face away and got to her feet, picking up the lantern as she went. She was thinking, but she didn’t like where her mind was wandering.
“...we’ll talk in the morning. C’mon now, girl. To bed with us.”
Entering the room again after so long was different and strange. The mood was more peaceful, but something bitter hung in the air like a limp flag, windless and soundless. I nearly went over to my usual side of the room, but for some reason, Billy took me by the hand and shook her head at me. She cocked her head elsewhere, where Gazette was sleeping with Mary at his side.
Billy laid down first, but didn’t let go of my hand until I got down there, too. Gazette roused slightly when Billy nuzzled her nose into his cheek and gave him a kiss. My chest ached... that looked nice.
Billy must have caught me staring, because she smiled at me, wished me goodnight, kissed my cheek, and blew out the lantern. I clung to her shirt just like Mary did with Gazette’s.
That night, I dreamed about Billy’s freckles. She reminded me of the sky.