Chapter 1: New Pet
Food, that's the most important thing. Meat for the maggot farm, food for two sets of gutty works to use to full potential, that was my mission. This day, one hundred and seventy four days since I found my Ducky, I looked out upon the scorched lands for something to feed the maggot farm. Nothing. In every direction there was nothing. For a time, I considered a sun nap which is a frivolous thing but a good way to pass time when nothing crosses your vision worthy of lead. As far as I was concerned, the world was as dead as it claims to be and I could easily trick myself into thinking that I was the last thing alive and squirmin' in the sand. One more time, one more look, and if I saw nothing, I'd close my eyes on the world for just a few hours. I deserved it. Ducky had been getting harder and harder to handle the more mobile he got.
Nothing. Nothing. Still nothing. Further nothing... Oh?
At first I thought it was merely a dark smudge on the lenses of my long lookers, a swipe with the cloth of a sleeve spoke the truth, there really was something moving in the sand in these peculiar lurching motions. Hmm, four legs, four arms. No, it wasn't some aberration with too many limbs, it was two, one dragging the other. How curious.
This warranted investigation, I supposed. It was too far yet for me to make a shot with mama's rifle. This blot on the horizon is more than a mile off and while I could get lucky and hit my mark, it's not worth the waste of bullets just to test my skill till I drop the body which still stands.
It was a hot day, I was sweating long before I was down off my stone perch and longing for my canteen by the time I clambered up into the sand sled. I took my sips, settled Mumsy's rifle between my legs and tried to remember, did I see that dark dot chugging along in the sand to the West or the East? I was fairly certain I had seen it in the west. Well, I'd either find something or I would not, such is the life of a scavenger. It was indeed in the West that I had seen it, meandering toward The Canyon.
Twice I took a peek through my trusted long-looker glass, twice I saw the forms of humans, but upon the second look it became clear that it was two women folk which was rare out there. The one on the ground was probably old, I could see a halo of dust yellowed white about the head, and the one who did the dragging was far smaller. Perhaps it was a child and certainly lean in body like one, but who can tell youth from starvation out here? Often they are one in the same, kith and kin. It's so odd. My heart was doing all sorts of funny things in my chest. An old one, pulled along by the hair which was tangled in the hands of the younger. I felt like I should recognize this. Did Mama not drag me to the shade many long moons ago? Did she not struggle with her broken thumbs to do it? Momentarily my eyes stung and blurred with wasted water. I wasn't sure why, could be dust, so I pulled my goggles down to protect my eyes.
The forms moving sluggishly westward were soon visible to my naked peepers when they weren't obscured by the rolling rust color hills which lead toward the bottleneck of The Canyon. Dangerous game, this was, skirting too close to that deadly passage which had a history of men who shot first and asked questions later. My target had heard my lovely fan blades whirring long before they powered down so that I may park, the dear creature was hunched over its prone companion and snarling like a cornered dog. My eyed roamed over the forms, searching out munitions, looks like they had nothing which goes bang, just a single blade which was openly brandished long before I stepped down out of the sand sleigh. Concern found my scavenger's hard heart. Such a lovely, albeit toasted, creature stood before me. She was trembling with pain and starvation. You can always tell from the face who is a child and who is not. This wasn't a child, a young lady, much like myself and quite striking with scars streaked over the angles of her symmetrical face. Symmetry means good genes. Hair too, she had quite the mane of dark tresses. What was this vision of potential beauty and health doing out here?
"I will fuckin' kill you! I'LL FUCKIN' DO IT!"
An awfully loud creature it was, you'd think that with skin that red and sun blisters that big she wouldn't have the strength to screech. Now to take a more critical peek at the situation. Her companion was not looking so good, flies swarmed in a noisy cloud around the old woman's face, which seemed a little more wrinkled than simply what comes from long decades under the wrath of the sun. The one still breathing looked like she was dressed in nothing more than a large flour sack cut open down the sides with a hole torn open to accommodate her head. It was simply tied off at her waist with a length of frayed twine. She had boots to protect her feet, at least. It still amazes me after fifteen years out here that poverty does not merely mean living without the presence of green, it means having literally nothing , not even a proper set of trousers. Oh, what to do? I was curious to know what I might be shooting at, now that there was a little tug on the threads of my heart. Mumsy certainly had her opinion.
Two bodies are better than none. Serve the lead and feed the crawlies.
Muscle memory is a dangerous thing. In the time it took to listen to Mumsy speak her secret words, I had loaded my weapon, closed the chamber, and lifted the rifle to bring it tight against my shoulder. No need to so much as aim properly from this distance, I could almost fire blind and still strike her down dead. I was hungry, you shouldn't go shooting when you're hungry, you might regret the lead you spat later on. Mum's words sounded a bit too harsh, I realized.
“But Mumsy , is one body not enough? Didn't even have to sacrifice lead for that one on the ground.”
And what of the girl? Think she'll survive long out here? She's already dead and doesn't even know it. Spare her the misery.
“You didn't seem so damn concerned for the sufferin' of others when Dune brought home Ducky! You didn't say a thing! If anyone deserved a merciful killin', it was him!”
You're changing the subject, kiddo. That skinny thing wont last a week out here, even if you relieve her of that body she's dragging around by the hair.
“Dune could take her home?”
She'd eat too much. Look how scrawny she is, scrawny means hungry.
“Well, she wouldn't feed many maggots either.”
“WHO'RE you TALKIN' to?!” That voice was neither myself or Mum.
I looked up from the rifle I must have lifted and lowered half a dozen times while Mumsy and I argued. Sometimes I forget that it is only me who can hear that wise voice.
“Mumsy,” I replied and punctuated the answer with a “Shush!”
I waited a moment, curious to see if Mumsy had more yet to say. No? Well, now I had a decision to make and a large part of me found the idea of being a petty shit very attractive. I could take this poor roasty-toasty girlie home for the sake of doing something which Mumsy seemed not to want. Then again, fresh meat is better for the maggots. It's good for the scavs too and Ducky needs the meat. I could have a little nibble if I shot her right then, and for Ducky... Well, I just wouldn't tell him that the meat is people. The War Boy needs a good meal. Aw, but the girl is such a pitiful, fragile looking thing. I knew I would feel guilty after my hunger was abated. Welp, Mum hadn't said another word and I couldn't spend all night out here arguing with myself. Merciful keepsies then, had to put on the friendly face.
“Oh,” I began, trying form my lips into a welcoming smile as I let my rifle hang behind me on its leather sling. The girl looked to be on the verge of tears, patting and trying to comb out the pale tangles upon the head of the corpse. I wondered if she knew it was a dead thing. “You're a feisty thing. Feisty feisty feisty! Bet yir thirsty, too.”
The dear thing was still clutching old dead woman's head in one arm, other hand wrapped white knuckled around the wooden grip of her blade. She didn't appear to be hearing my words now, so I tried again, louder, but sweeter this time.
"You thirsty, Purty Thing? You want some wet stuff? Some grub? Ohhh, bet that tongue is awful dry."
I even tried lifting my canteen from where it had been clipped to my belt for her to see and giving it a shake so she could hear the wet stuff inside. That got her attention, almost seemed that she'd drop her blade as she fidgeted about on her knees in the sand. I tried closing the gap between us by hopping down out of my sand sleigh and walking the twenty or so yards gingerly, dear thing probably couldn't even stand on her own now in such a sorry state. Ah, perhaps a step or two closer? It would be cruel to make her walk all that way for only a few sips. I was forced to stop at only six or seven tire widths, for she was leaning back now against the corpse, full of avoidance and distrust in spite of her dryly smacking lips. Can't fault her for that, you should never trust anyone you meet in Scav Country no matter what they're offering.
"No! Don't want no cola! Nasty poisoned stuff you've got's gon' eat my guts up!" Her silence broke so harshly that the flies which had settled upon the dead thing to feed scattered and buzzed in a furious swarm.
Aw, poor thing. But why would I poison something I might have to eat later? The thinkin' she had going on up in her sun-sick skull flesh wasn't making sense. I thought about how I could coax her over to the canteen, but she did not give me time to come up with a solution. I might have come too close, she yelped at my encroaching shadow as I moved and lurched forward to swing her arm in a clumsy arc. Perhaps I should not have been so lazy about taking my step back out of range of her attack. I forgot that there was something sharp gripped at the end of that arm. The sting of biting steel shot up my leg as I looked to examine the damage. Barely a knick, but the tip of the blade had torn an inch long hole in the knee of my trousers. Silly of me to think the girl had no strength left to get stabby. Somehow I felt offended, kicking out my leg to show her what she had done.
"Ah. Ya cut Dune's britches. Oi, that'll fray. It'll need a patch! I only have two pairs ya know!"
I retreated another step, then shook the canteen again and popped off the cap with my thumb to take a few gulps.
"Not poison. See? Dune been drinkin' it all day, every day! She's fit and swift!" Now, I had to try talkin' a bit gentler as I held out the life liquid for her to take. "C'mon girlie. She knows you're thirsty thirsty thirsty."
Poor thing, eyes all narrow and scooting sideways to get closer while keeping that handy blade between us. Everything about her was the personification of a kicked dingo ready to snap those jaws. She did not take the water tenderly, she tore it from my hand in her desperation and finished off what had to be half a day's worth in just a minute of harsh gulping. I was even concerned that she might choke. My canteen was returned. By returned I mean tossed to my feet empty. I watched the girl scuttle back clumsily as I bent to pick up my property. She was right back on that corpse, stroking its drying face and flaking skin. Clumps of hair were falling out into the girl's hands, and was the corpse missing a finger? I think it was. She was still brandishing that knife too, lifting it even when all I was doing was shifting my weight. She seemed to eventually plop from her heels onto her backside and crumple as she tried to swat away the persistent flies. It was an exercise in futility.
"...Mumma's sick." she whimpered.
The girl seemed be lying to herself with complete conviction. Could be sun-poisoned delusions, she probably had no idea that she'd been dragging only the meat shell of a loved one. Oof, unsanitary. She's laying next to the rotted cadaver. I supposed that was her ill-minded way of telling me that this conversation was over. Hmm, Once more I tried to take Mumsy's advice, putting the back of her head in the crosshairs to put her out of her misery. She'd still be juicy enough for a some nice fat crawlies but, I couldn't do it. Her lethargy had me wonderin' if she'd just given up. Little thing like her, livin' as long as she had, it felt a shame that she'd give up the ghost now. Especially after she'd guzzled half a canteen of my water. The scene itself though, maybe that's what stopped me from delivering a bullet to her nugget. It felt strange, again, I felt the sensation that I had seen this before, been here even, but it was darker, colder. I remember waiting for her to wake up, my mummy.
“We've done this, haven't we Mumsy? Haven't we?” She didn't answer me or maybe wouldn't. I could feel myself cringing, upper lip pulling tight over the sharps behind them. I put it all out of my head, there was work to be done. I put the cap back on the canteen and clipped it back to my belt as I assessed the situation. The old woman is VERY dead. Not sick. But the girl is salvageable and the corpse was worth perhaps week worth of maggots for three mouths. Maybe? She'd surely already be seeded with fly eggs. Won't have to wait long.
"Dune knows sick from green, maybe a bowl of crawlie food will perk her up? And a medicine man. Dune knows a right good organic mechanic who could help if that don't work... Jus' gotta take a short ride. Yeah? No? Up ya get girlie. Decision time."
The girl certainly wasn't making any sort of haste, not that I expected her too. What a peculiar little thing, looking up at the sky for a moment, or perhaps a sign, before gathering her waning strength to stand. What a mess, almost as big a mess as my Ducky but in a very different way. I wondered if the girl had ever once known the feeling of a full meal. Probably not, judging by the frailty of her shape and her small stature. Too little grub had stunted the dear thing. She had the look War Boy often wore in the first days when he was just beginning to heal, the engine was running but there was no one at the wheel. All that was left is a face that could be pretty, if it weren't red and swollen by sun blisters across the cheeks and bridge of her nose.
She went for the corpse once again, grasping it by the hair. The way the scalp moved with each pull, trying to lift off away from skull, it made my guts hurt and my scalp ache in a phantom throb. I tried twice to help, just so that I didn't have to watch the girl pull apart the body trying to move it. She could hardly move herself. It was a special kind of agony to be forced to watch. Each time I came too close, that knife clenched in her fist would threaten. Somehow she still managed to have the temperament and speed of a scorpion that had been prodded with a twig one too many times.
"Don't touch Mumma. Mumma don't like grabby hands, Cunt ." she growled.
Seemed that whoever brought her up didn't bother to leave their shitty language on the curb when she was a wee thing. I took my glance toward the corpse again, wondering if that was who the girl learned that word from. I wasn't too bothered, but the thoughtless tone of it made me wonder how often I'd be hearing that instead of my lovely name. The vulgar girl couldn't lift the body. She seemed to be getting more and more panicked as she tried and failed to heave the old crone up into my sand sled. I suppressed a hiss. Time is life, and there's never enough. Couldn't stand out here forever, waiting an eon in futility for the scorpion girl to get the job done.
I felt my lips pull against the sharps once again. I could hear a motor, somewhere, perhaps obscured by the jagged red hills of the bad lands. Sounds like bikes. Rock Riders. They've been all over lately, scattered like cockroaches. I had no choice, had to risk a bleeder to help. I reached into the the sled toward the front end and grabbed a tarp, the very same one I brought home dear Slit all wrapped up within. I couldn't let the woman struggle and fight the dead all day. Whether she liked it or not, I positioned myself by the old wretch's feet, slung the tarp under her stiff legs and lifted with it to take some of the weight and get the old bag in there. The smell was... Strong. I enjoyed a few coughs and a gagging fit. She's especially funky from the heat.
"Girlie, we better pump the guzz. I hear bikes. Riders ain't friendly lately! What with the war parties all abusing their bottleneck!" I tried to inspire some speed, but the girl didn't seem to share my concern over the engines chugging through guzz, growing closer with every beat of our hearts.
In the corpse went, finally, and I was next. The fans took their sweet time to start spinning, three pulls of the cord before the motor hummed to life. The sleigh lurched forward and the girl nearly toppled at the movement. She could barely seem to hold up her own head but fought to remain conscious with her eyes on me, still armed with her little blade. She steadied herself by crawling across the floor of the sled, then took a spot nearer to the dead one. Her face changed, furious and spooked all at once.
"Hey, HEY! Cola is THAT way, stupid fuck! We're all gonna roast out'ere. Nothin' 'round for forever!" she was pointing toward the canyon, and no doubt she meant the place beyond it, the mythic Citadel. No we weren't headed that way.
Cocky lil' thing, and I was getting sick of being yelled at right quick with the added stress of Rock Riders nearby. No time to scold her, yet. I shoved up my goggles to have a peek toward the West through the long lookers. Three Rock Riders I spied zooming around a hill and headed diagonally across my path. Time to pull the good ol' back up lead-spitter from her ankle holster. I liked to call this one Betty, Betty Beretta. I took two shots at nothing, holding my pea shooter high and aiming for sky. The girl startled terribly, hands clapped over her ears, but these were only warning shots before taking aim at the skull of the apparent leader of this small Rock Rider pack crossing our way home. He signaled back at his followers with a quick wave of a gloved hand. Two more shots were fired from Rider weapon but not at us. They, too, were only warning shots. This is Scav Country communication: Talking through the bang bang of threats. Two shots has a simple meaning: 'Im too busy to bother you, but you'll regret it if you bother me.' As the riders left my line of sight I turned the barrel of the pistol toward the girl, aimed for her knee cap.
"Language, Girlie Girl. Yir in polite company that got no qualms with bustin' off knees. Oh, wouldn't cripple ya. But a lil graze ta shut ya up... I got me a gusher in my territory. Dune'll show ya that clean 'cola' if ya behave... Cripes, this one's mouthy, worse than the War Boy! Eh, Mumsy?? Like her now do ya? Purty thing." It was just another warning. I could still decide I'd rather eat her up. Mumsy seemed to be all laughter at her antics now. Oof, ol' Mum was ornery today.
That mouth on the girl snapped shut and her terrible glare was no threat to me. For all her hardness I was not afraid, more amused than anything else. The girl was not dumb, however, she knew better than to swing her arm around with that knife while I possessed lead which flies with a bang. She was brave though, so brave. Bold was she, a girl with the balls to reach out slowly and push away the barrel of a crackshot's pistol. I pulled back with it, left hand gripping the steering paddle while she spouted off yet again. Oh, I couldn't help my grin. What fun this little wretch was!
"Forkin' LOON! What War Boy?! Ain't no War Boys out'ere, THAT I know! And WHO'RE y'talkin' to?! That nobody-talk's gon'make me go mad!" She screeched over the whir was the fan blades. Amazing that the mouth on her still seemed to work while the rest of her flesh was so near to failing.
"You'll see, Purty Thing. Can't wait for ya to meet mah Ducky." I said, sweetly as I could when one had to shout over the buffeting air and the fan.
The girl seemed to shrink at my smile. Sometimes it's hard to remember that few are happy to see the ol' sharps. She was soon on that corpse again, opening the tarp to swat the flies off. The wind left the flying pests in our dust wake, but surely the moment we stopped, new flies would come to replace those left behind.
"'Ducky'. 'Mumsy'. 'Dune'. Got a lot o'names up there in your grey bits. Wonder how many of'em are really real?" She asked out loud, irritability clear as cool water. I still couldn't believe how much talking she was willing to do despite her condition.
Her knife was still in her hand. Her body language, hunched and stiff, it all spoke to me where her words failed. Maybe she'd rather have been left for dead but she'd learn, learn like Ducky and I, everything is temporary, even the pain. Madness might be forever, but madness can be bliss too.
"Voices in there too," I muttered under my breath, too low to hear. Mum might have been upset by what else I had to say; better just to drop it.
Our journey took us toward the skirts of the mountains, some ways North of the canyon. There's only one narrow path I and often came within inches of clipping overhangs of rock when negotiating the treacherous path toward the cave mouth. It's a matter of experience, I made this trip so often I could do it blindly. For a moment it always seems that I might to crash into a rock face, but its just a trick of the light. We slipped into the underground without so much as a bump. It's pitch black until you reach what Slit calls the garage. The chamber was illuminated by yawning hole in the roof. Shirley, a 1960 Chevy Impala hard top, sat with the hood open. Duck had been tinkering while I was away. Glad was I that he hadn't been too bored. Mama's bike was in pieces. Slit had been showing me how to better care for it while he took it apart to clean it up and give her a much needed tune-up. Ahh, the smell of machine lube and guzz, such a stink that you'd think I lived with a pack of powdery white coated young men with battle brands on their backs. Once the fan blades slowed to a stop, I hopped out and holstered my hand-gun, waiting to see what the girl would do with the corpse.
The girl climbed out of the sled pulling the poor old deado by the hair, but by the way she was beginning to shake with the effort it took to drag the body along, it was clear that I'd gotten her to the shade just in time. It was right about then that the girl noticed the gleaming sweat on the far wall of the chamber. She dropped that corpse father than a child who had mistakenly picked up a shiny thing which turned out to be a stinging critter, then she tossed herself bodily at the rock as if into the arms of a long lost lover. She licked the walls eagerly, damn near made sweet love to the rock. It was bizarrely erotic. She'd have a raw tongue, actin' like that.
"Fuckin' loon, you some witch?!" She crowed, I could hear the sun-sillies in her voice, woven through relief and horrified reverence.
Maybe she was sick enough to think I truly was of some other worldly gift. He sighs and moans against the rock saddened me, she even dropped her little knife to enjoy the cool feel of the just slightly damp stone under her palms. No, I cannot make stone weep for me. I should have known the girl would chuck herself at the wall, such a thirsty thing. In here, the cola evaporates before it can glide to the floor. I stole a peek at the long gone one, gave her a nudge with the toe of my boot, too. Still very, very dead.
"Ain't a witch, jus' lucky. There's bettah water than that, further in," I tried to encourage her, ever so gently, to follow me to where I could give her a real sip of water.
She grabbed and scrabbled at the corpse, tugging on it with all her might. I really thought she might tear the scalp off it. Normally I wouldn't have let this happen if I wasn't certain that I'd never get her down into the interior sans corpse. It felt like hours, waiting for the girl to catch up with her burden. But, with patience and time, we arrived in the place where Ducky and I slept and gathered water.
I was soon busy filling a jar for her to drink from and considering the sleeping arrangement. Trusting Ducky to be civil was a mistake. Such a mistake.
"War Boy," I heard her spit. "Sick'n nasty, jus'like the rest. War fodder!"
The creep was out for the day, had been since this morning and said she might not be back for a day or two. She did that a lot, habitually really. I was dragged out in the daylight by her a number of times, she said I needed more sunlight so I didn't get funny in the head. Feh, she's one to talk about funny in the head. When she's out there, from what I've seen in her company, she just wanders about between unoccupied landmarks so she could keep watch over her patch, sometimes she ventured further out into the narrow strips of dust between territories, places she called the “fair game” zones. In those places, she kept an eye out for things to shoot and drag home.
Her leaving to do her biweekly walkabout was a blessing from V8; gave me time to actually get something done without her constant jibber-jabber in my left ear.
On the day she brought home the skinny little bone bag of a girl, I was trying to to figure out where the psychotic had hidden my shit: my gauntlet and blade, my knives, by backup pistol, my boot knife... my boot. She wouldn't even let me keep the boot I came with anymore. I mocked the tone of her voice and the words she spoke when she took it away and handed me a different one to wear.
“This ol' thing stinks so bad I think your last foot might rust right off. Nyah pfft pfft... Dust licker.”
It makes no sense to me because if she was worried about me getting kamicrazy, she should have restricted access to tools too. I could just as easily beat her to death with a tire iron but chose not to because I knew she was my meal ticket. She also has that cursed shine hand which touches so soft and rust.
It was when I heard voices, two of them, that I dropped the crap I had gathered in an arm as I picked through one of her piles of collected rubbish, kicking it all back toward the pile and scooting over to the spot she had me sleeping in so that it would look like I was working on a better leg. She always bitched when I dug around looking for my things. Why was I hearing two voices? I couldn't even pretend to be busy messing with the leg junk on my low, makeshift table made up of a plank of wood and two plastic crates. At first I thought it was just an awkward echo from near the surface and that the Nutter was talking to herself, but no, that other voice was pitched different. Dune's voice was low, kind of scratchy in my good ear, this other one was higher, more shrill. Another breeder.
What I saw was not what I expected, it wasn't Dune, it wasn't another scavenger. You could only describe it as an animate torn potato sack with four twigs hanging out of it. I guess that made her hairy head a spud. That hair made me anxious for some reason, something that digs at the shell of your skull from the inside, something that made me feel fucking miserable. It pissed me off to watch her back her way into the room, dragging something behind her. Little idiot, you should never great a strange room ass first. Ugh, the place suddenly reeked like death. When she finally turned to look at the damn place, I made sure she knew I was here. I gave her a show of my teeth and let her hear for a fact that she'd better not get too close with her stench. The cave echoed with the sound of thunder in my chest cage. The first thing she did when she noticed me was hurl an insult.
"War Boy," the creature yipped in a sneer. "Sick'n nasty, jus'like the rest. War fodder!"
If I weren't being yelled at by some random fuck I might have taken it as a compliment that my faction was still discernible at first glance. Dune was next to appear, darting around the stranger and sweeping through the room toward her sleep spot. I felt the sting of her right hand against the corner of my lips and my split cheek as she jogged by.
"Be nice!" she snapped at me, moving out of my reach too quickly for me to hit her back.
I swung for her inner thigh and missed. Sticking my tongue out at her would have to do for retaliation, for now. Dune was piling her rat-holed blanket and scraps of ancient, brown couch foam into her arms, turning to shove at me to move over while she dumped more musty bedding down and spread it out to expand my sleeping spot. She was moving too hurriedly, jumping from one random action to the next. It was all happening too quick for me to piece together what what going on.
"Who the fuck is THAT, Dune?... Dune? Maniac, damn it. Hey!" she never answered me.
Was she ignoring me?! I tried an insult, that sometimes got her attention. "Sand whore! Answer!"
Still nothing so I kicked her but not hard. I could break her knee at this angle if I wanted to. She stamped her boot down on the stony floor, too near to my stump for comfort.
"Patience! Needy boy," she growled.
I looked at the stranger, then back to the bedding being rearranged at my left, then back to the skinny little wretch. Oh, no. Hell no! Dune was making room, living space for some vermin she found out in the sand! And she was offering up a portion of my space to the bag of bones she'd dragged home. The second the Maniac turned to do something else, I threw my good leg over the lot of it, all of the comfortable, dry sitting space. This was MY spot, damn it, I suffered the torture of living with the Loon for it, it was mine. I don't fucking share my bed with strangers. She probably had mites or lice. I maintained eye contact, glaring ice into her. She looked just as insane as the Scav.
Dune shoved something into her bony hands. Argh! Sharing our cola too? Dune smiled at the waif as she chugged down three enormous mouthfuls of aqua-cola from my drinking jar, it was that gross grin of razors that tries to be comforting but falls very short. Something about that, the way Dune was looking at the puny girl, it was infuriating. She'd barely looked at me at all since she got back, didn't even bother to ask about the progress on the replacement leg. The stranger seemed to have forgotten about me too now that she had something wet in her mouth. Whatever the hell she had dragged in here all wrapped up in the tarp had her attention now, she opened the crinkling blue plastic and fussed at it, crooning and muttering almost just like the nutter would. I couldn't let her forget to mind me, or think about getting comfortable.
I pulled in air through my nose, snorting back a gob full of slime for a real juicy bush oyster. I fired it off, aiming to spit right in her eye but the wad of my funk didn't quite make it. Waste of wet stuff. It spattered against her expose knob of a knee and the ground impotently. When that got her to look up, I saw that she had green eyes, like the Nutter, but darker, sicker, full of hate. Perfect. I didn't bother to hide my smirk. It didn't take much to piss this one off off. Dune always had to be goaded for a while before she'd retaliate and even then she'd treat it like a game, smiling all the while like a moron. It had been so long since somebody -anybody- felt so little pity that they'd truly fight me. I would not be disappointed, she flung my jar at me with everything she had and I had to duck if I didn't want it broken over my head. It exploded against the wall in a rain of shattered glass, falling across my lap and all through the crumpled betting. Little bitch! I wanted a fight, didn't so much want her breaking my shit.
"Sand-suckler," She hissed. I don't know what the hell it meant, but it didn't sound like anything but another insult.
She huffed and spat back at me, cola thinned threads of saliva falling down her sharp chin. When it landed on my boot, she cocked her head up as if in a taunt. Sand mite didn't know who or what hell she was even dealing with. I felt my flesh go hot, red, a thick vein in my forehead pulsing as my blood began to boil. I snatched up the wooden peg leg and lurched forward on my hands and remaining knee, meaning to club her with this temporary prosthesis. I ignored the way broken shards bit into my palm.
"You'll EAT that glass you cola addicted wretched BRAIN WASTE!" I bellowed loudly enough to shake the room.
The sun loony thing didn't seem the least bit threatened but she did seem to search herself for something, maybe a weapon, before lunging at me with arms waving to no doubt try scratching out my eyes. Dune wouldn't let me have my fun, my face met with her hip bone clumsily when she put herself between me and the wretch just in time to prevent me from getting my hands around a wrist and snapping it. I was still determined to knocked Dune's new pet into place, swinging my wooden peg leg and trying to reach around the Scavenger's thigh to club the little rat girl with it. Dune started shouting, yanking my false leg right out of my hands and blocking the girl's retaliatory attack with her own body.
"Enough! Play like NICE seedlings!" She fairly roared before shoving at me in the sternum with a knee to back off. I gave up, for the moment, trying to figure out how to avoid sitting in broken glass and licking my bloody palm.
Dune looked back at the girl. Something in me raged hotter when the nutter was looking at HER instead of me. It's irrational, and I cursed myself for giving a shit who the fang-tooth was fawning and cooing at. I just didn't like it, didn't like HER. I think that's the moment I realized Dune was tolerable, at least compared to a smelly little stick of a breeder hissing and spitting and breaking crap. Little cunt didn't even look thankful, not that I ever made any effort to look thankful either, but she was just as rust tempered toward Dune as she had been with me so far. She only bared her teeth any time the Scav looked in her direction, and Dune was nothing but sickeningly sweet toward her.
That smell was getting worse. That couldn't be just the wretched wench. I looked to the Nut-bag, watching her eyes drift toward the tarp, then recognized that what lay inside was a corpse. A dead old breeder. We made eye contact again, the Loon and I. She had that rare sane glint in her eye. That can't stay in here, surely the Nutter realized this. One corpse in the room is more than enough. I stole a glance toward the dark hollow of stone four or five meters away, where “Mumsy” sat in a dry haunt, silently waiting for Dune to chatter at her. I pleaded just as silently, looking at Dune and shaking my head. Don't fucking leave another one in here. I was already on the verge of gagging from the stench, throat hole tight and dry.
"Sweetling, Dune thinks maybe you're Mumsy would be better off if Dune took her to seek better care. She knows an organic, right talented forker. He could help?" Dune tried, kneeling slowly by the open tarp.
I rolled my eyes, what a fucking lie. The only place that old bitch was going was the maggot tubs. Dune cringed at me and brought a finger to her lips. The girl didn't seem to notice the gesture, thankfully. She was definitely sun-screwed in the head. The girl scooted back to hunch herself over the body when Dune brought up the possibility of taking it away. She was blinking slow, eyes heavy, anyone with a brain could tell she was out of guzz and running on fumes.
"I'll come," she insisted, petting the corpse's forehead. The scalp there was near-completely rotted away and she either didn't care or didn't notice that her touching was making the decaying skin glide around all over the skull underneath. I was going to chunder if I had to keep watching that.
"I can feed Mumma. Y'said y'had crawlies, bowls of crawlies...? I can feed her good. Her hands ain't workin' so well, nowadays. Shaky, shaky. Not good for the mothers." She wretch just kept on talking, which, I wasn't sure how. She looked like she was about to take a one-way trip to the maggot farm, too.
Dune and I shared another wordless conversation with our eyes. The wretched is clearly heat stroked, delusional, blisters are forming over tight red skin that's had enough sun to kill a pup. She motioned at me to do something about the glass, I showed her my favorite finger, which she slapped out of the air in front of her and before pointing harshly at the glass again. For the third time in the last ten minutes I felt insulted, being ordered around by the psychotic. After that, while I picked the shards out of my bedding, I watched as Dune crooned softly and knelt by the reeking body.
"Tsk tsk tsk. Aw dear thing, Dune suspects you're mummy is a bit too, er... tired for a belly full of maggots. An you're outta fuel, you c'n rest while Dune takes her for Wilson to patch up.” she was lying again.
The mad scavenger was being cautious, but pulling very slowly at the edges of the tarp in an attempt to cover the corpse back up, trying not to cringe at the smells and the putrid fluids leaking out. Sallow colored puddles were forming inside the tarp and dripping thickly from any pinhole or small tear. Rotten blood and the first signs of maggot turds. Even in the low light I could spot tiny, tiny newborn crawlers squiggling around between the wretch's sun toasted fingers while Dune worked gingerly to separate the girl from the corpse and lifting it in the tarp. I could see that she was struggling against her own nature to avoid making any sudden movements. The scrawny girl still seemed agitated, grumbling and growling as Dune removed her “mumma” from her grip. She even made a grab at the white hair hanging from one end of the tarp to draw it back into her arms. A clump of that hair simply fell off in her fingers as Dune moved away and waddled off with the extra weight through the passages toward the upper reaches of the cavern.
"Don't you hurt her!" she was making all kinds of noisy threats now, jabbing her finger through the air in the direction Dune had gone. "Hurt Mumma, an'I'll right rip your eyes out! Nails been growin' out for days, right sharp now! Don't need no lead t'leave you rottin'!"
Dune was nuts, but smart enough to move quick with that body now that she had the girl apart from it. I wanted to shout after her, remind her that she forgot about the other stiff. Easy to see this sickly runt probably wouldn't survive long. Before I could get a word in, the little bitch turned and stabbed that bony finger at me. Not too bright, was she? Or maybe too sun-poisoned to know better than to threaten somebody more than twice her size. I could kill her accidentally.
"Tha' goes for y'too, soft-cock." she spouted off rubbish, seeming to fully believe she was capable of doing more than simply irritating me.
Renewed anger. My thunder stick was just fine, it woke up every morning before I did to stand up straight and firm to greet the day, it even did that a few months back when the burns under the bandages I wore were fresh.
"Tch, this hotrod won't feel soft when I scoop out your eye and skull fuck you, Tiny." my words were low, deep, full of rage and untold decades of glorious war. She might as well have been taunting a king of snakes, nasty fangs that could poison you so fast you'd never have a prayer to see another day.
She just snorted and bared her piss yellow teeth in a twisted smile. She was even bold enough to lean in, well within my reach. She was so close I could smell her breath.
"Fuck m'head? First you'll have t'CATCH me, stump-legged fuckwit, an' I don't got t'be quick t'outrun somethin' like you."
That was a mistake, a big one. And it would cost us both. My right palm clapped over her sneering face so quick that an audible slap sounded and she flew away from me in a backwards somersault. I heard a dull thud, the sound of skull introduced to rock, then the sound of the Nutter's stomping boots as she bounded back toward the interior, shouting curses at me the whole way.
Arguing had always been a factor of my life that had become as natural to me as breath. Whether it was me, arguing for provisions and necessities since the moment I was grown enough to string together a handful of words, or my parents, battling one-another with their words because they were both perfectly aware that they were too important to take any blows, arguing was a constant. In fact, it was nearly a comfort.
Despite the sheer volume of the arguing, as if it were happening right inside my ear, I was able to fall in and out of bouts of rest without ever needing to tell the pair that were bickering to quiet down. Dragging myself from sleep was like attempting to wade through thick, half-dried mud, cooking under the unforgiving sun. My limbs, particularly my arms, were sore and throbbing, and I couldn’t find the energy in them to squirm around and test my strength. The back of my thighs and calves, on the other hand, were pleasantly cool, so much so that they caused me to shiver, as if I were laying on a long cloth drenched in aqua cola.
The worst of my pain found its source on my left temple, just shy of my hairline. My skin there was surely blackened and bruised, because no headache or migraine could feel so furious in intensity without some sort of previous injury. When born, some pups had dented, softened skulls that made them look as if they had seen war- I had never felt more sympathy for them before that horrible point.
I shifted irritably in my spot as the conversation around me grew with surprisingly animosity. The voices, male and female, sounded as if they were at their wits end with one-another. It reminded of my once-ignore childhood.
“I'm hungry, damn it,” the man moaned, if not a bit too dramatically for my tastes.
"Stop whining,” the woman said, equally as annoyed as she was distracted. A soft hand was wriggling beneath the mass of my limp head as she spoke, lifting it off the comfort of the blanketed floor and easing it into a crooked elbow.
"I'm not whining. I'M. STARVING.” The man was like a sand critter, testing for weaknesses in the walls of a tent in a desperate attempt to find a way in to shield itself from the elements. He was testing her, but the woman wasn’t relenting.
"It's been a day and a half, you are NOT starving, Cannon Fodder."
A day and a half without food, and this man could find it in himself to complain? I would have snorted, was I more awake, but I couldn’t even close my gaping mouth. Spiddle was dribbling its was down my chin.
"Don't fucking call me that, Wench!" Damn complainer. He needed to learn to shut his gob.
"You'll eat when we find out if she's a corpse or not!"
A chill ran down my spine, colder than even the frigid state of my legs. Had they figured I was going to die?
"She was a corpse when she got here!"
“…but more alive than you were.”
I groaned pathetically at that comment. Was I already dead? The woman soothed me as gently as she could by running her fingers through my hair. Maude would do that, sometimes…
Was I still home?
The pair continued to argue over the specifics of exactly how long it had been since the man had eaten, and whether or not my groaning and squirming were enough to display the fact that I hadn’t bitten the dust. How could this man possibly understand starvation when he had barely gone more than a day without food?
Despite myself and my sensitivity to light, my eyes shot open.
I wasn’t hungry. For one time in my life since I could remember properly, I was not miserably pushing the pain of the dark pit in my stomach out of my grey bits. I was content. Most importantly, I was full.
My watery eyes focused on the face above mine, the one belonging to the woman who was holding me tenderly in her arms as if I was a newborn. Her features were soft, but mature, and though I had yet to ask her for the numbers of days during which she had wandered this Wasteland, I could tell she was older than me. Her skin was dark, proof of her ancestry being one of sun worshippers, and her face was rounded with the decent fat of a near-constant happy stomach. Her beaded dreadlocks bounced as she emphatically argued with the man. Their movement stilled instantly once she noticed my eyes were open, though.
She paused and took a moment to look into my face, and her lips slowly pulled into a pleased smile. Her teeth, sharpened to bothersome points, gleamed yellow like reptile fangs.
“Cunt!” I roared, and without a scrap of thought left to keep my actions tied at the wrists, I launched the heel of my bandaged palm past my face and into the woman’s hard chin.
I felt her bottom row of teeth connect harshly with her upper jaw upon impact, and her entire skull rattled aggressively under her skin. Her hands flung into the air with the accompanying shock and to grab at her face. An unflattering grunt of a noise escaped her as I hopped from her grasp, which sent her rolling onto her tailbone and back into the man’s lap. He clearly had no patience for her- without missing a beat, he thoughtlessly jerked his forearm up and against the woman’s back, and used the strength in his muscled arm to push her away from him. She went sprawling into the bedding she had had me laying on at the mercy of his strength, ungracefully landing on her elbows and knees.
I escaped her clasping hands on my palms and knees, scrambling harshly in the direction of the opposite end of the dank cave. While my eyes still watered with shock, I kept them wide and attentive, attempting to ignore how harshly they were stinging. At least, from my corner, I could see the entire expanse of the space. Any signs that might have indicated I was some place familiar were missing completely. I was alone, in a world of strangers.
The woman awkwardly sat up and back onto her thighs and raised the back of her hand to her mouth. Her swollen tongue was then dragged across her dark skin. Even from my distance, I could tell the trail of saliva that her mouth had left behind was mostly blood.
"Ack! Dune thinks she pierced a Scav's tongue on her own teeth!" the woman exclaimed, though her words spilled from her mouth with a slight lisp.
The man seemed all too chuffed with seeing the woman in pain. His expression made me believe that the sight of blood on her gave him some sort of rush.
"Hah! Serves you- OW!" the man jeered, but he swiftly moved to a shocked howl, then silence when the woman reached backwards with her bloodied hand and violently ripped a couple of his dark chest hairs.
Their tendency towards unnecessary violence made me deeply uncomfortable. It seemed only those with enough grit and food had the energy to throw themselves into a world of violence. I only acted in a need to preserve my life; the only reason they preserved their lives was to see others act.
I groaned worriedly when the woman on all fours turned her wild eyes towards me. She showed me her teeth again in an eerily wide smile as she shuffled in my direction.
“Feisty thing! Ready for lizard bits soon!” she exclaimed, with all the pride of a new mother with a wailing pup she was all too eager to devour later at her tit.
I rapidly backed up against the wall when she made a further move to approach me, my sore back pressing urgently against the back wall as my feel slipped and slid against the wet rock. I hooked myself to the stone with my hands and tried to make myself as tall and thin as possible, as to fit as snuggly as I could into the narrow corner, but a foreign sensation that was crawling across my dark skin made me pause and inspect myself beneath the collar of my tunic.
My skin was covered in a thin layer of a gooey, glossy substance I couldn’t identify. It looked something like petroleum jelly, but there was no way Gastown would sell such extensive amounts of their product to a lone pair of sharp-witted cave-dwellers. They were smarter businessmen than that.
Instinctively, I thought the worst. Was this preparation? The introduction to a ceremony I wasn’t aware of enough to avoid? When followers of the Mother passed, they were often oiled up before being buried… was I destined for a similar fate? My captors’ pearly, corpselike eyes didn’t assure me for a moment.
My heart began racing as I took it upon myself to begin scraping the goopy substance off of my skin, flinging the sticky substance to the ground around me as my panicked breath rapidly turned to uncontrollable whimpering. The bandages around my hands, however, only kept the goo stuck against my burned hands and kept spreading the substance around further.
I then violently went off on the bandages with my teeth, aggressively attempting to rip them off with the rough tugging of my jaws, but the woman had seemingly bandaged me so well that I could not find enough strength to pry the wraps off.
"Get it away, I don't want it! Get it off!” I hollered, not to my captors but perhaps to the Mother, scrubbing and fitfully rubbing my limbs, trying to find my old skin. It was everywhere- on my legs, and arms, and back, and even on the back of my neck. The woman had not even allowed me an inch of bare, normal skin. It felt like it was consuming me whole, the wet jaws of a beast clamping down on me without a moment’s hesitation.
This couldn’t be the Mother’s work. No wholesome goddess such as Herself would do this to one of her followers. This was certainly something out of the woman’s twisted witch-religion. She had told me that this cave, this cave that weeped aqua cola like it had just checked an empty lizard trap, was found completely by luck, but I knew much better. She was hiding her abilities behind those teeth, I could just sense it.
"I don't want the witch magic!" I resorted to blubbering. "I don't got no devil-blood in me!" I would have surely shown the woman the red blood in my veins if I could have, the same colour of the Mother’s red lips, but my cord-cutting knife was gone. I felt as if I had been stripped of my identity. I couldn’t even prove my worth to the mother, now. I was as good as cooked long pig.
The woman sat up on her knees at my complaintive begging, and to my horror, reached her hands out to me, perhaps in a twisted attempt to soothe my rabid screaming. Her male companion, on the other hand, didn’t allow her to get too close- he grabbed her harshly by the belts around her waist and yanked her backwards before her digits could come into contact with my skirts. I could tell the action wasn’t one of charity: he was simply preventing her from getting too close to somebody he knew he couldn’t trust.
"She's not fangin' magic,” the man gritted through his stained teeth, roughly tugging on the seat of the woman’s pants and tugging her backwards every time she squirmed. “She's just a lunatic.”
The woman huffed and pulled back against the strain of his hand.
"Oof... Rack off, Slit!” she barked, but she turned back to me with exactly the same eagerly pleasant disposition as she had displayed before.
“C'mon purty thing, that's ol' world medicine from an old world organic mechanic!” the woman insisted further, trying to ease me with a sweetened tone of voice. “Doctor Wilson!"
All the while, as the woman tried to get me to quit my removal of the goo, the man was glowering at me from over her shoulder. His lips, scarred and disgusting as they were, were twisting bitterly at the sight of me, and past the metallic scent of blood and the sound of the woman chastising the man for holding her back, I could nearly smell the stench of his breath and hear the irritating sound of his teeth grinding together. He knew he was making me nervous, and he fucking adored it.
At the sight of me watching, he reached his left hand outwards, towards a bowl I hadn’t noticed was sitting between him and the woman. With all the casual comfort in the world, he locked eyes with me, probably snarled a little, and attempted to swipe for the contents of the bowl, but the woman swatted him away before he could retrieve his prize.
The evident displeasure that crossed his features once he had been taken away from whatever he wanted only made my desire to get the goo off faster. I resorted to rubbing my shoulders back against the wall, hoping perhaps that the friction between the fabric and my skin would scrub the goo away for me, but the idea was half-life in nature.
Just as I thought I was beginning to get all of the stickiness off of myself, I felt a horrible, stinging pressure and popping sensation being released against my shoulder blade, as well as the sensation of warm liquid dribbling down my back. A fiery burning overtook the entire right side of my back, and a scream escaped me that was beyond my control. A sun blister, one I don’t remember ever getting, had exploded due to my stupidity, and there was no supposed Organic around to give me more goo. I had fucked myself, right and proper.
The thought of the Organic managed to draw me out of my painful stupor, at least momentarily. The woman had offered to take Maude there, once she had convinced me to join her here… but Maude was nowhere to be found, at least not in the larger, more central part of the cave me, the woman and the man were in.
Where had she taken my mother?
The realization that my mother was nowhere to be found quieted my worried sounds of painful aching almost instantaneously, first shifting from a panicked crying to a lower, huffing grunt, until I finally fell silent. My tears dried a few moments later, as my head raced with the possibilities of where Maude could have gone.
My eyes flitted rapidly between the woman, the man, and the exit of the cave. The place, though I was unfamiliar with it, didn’t seem extensively large. If my mother was here, she was close. Yet, why were the pair of them keeping her from me? Was this some form of sadistic torture? I knew their types. They weren’t uncommon in the Wasteland. Take something of value from unsuspecting people, claim they wouldn’t return their belongings unless something of equal value was offered, usually in the form of a dirty fucking. On top of this, the woman, I vaguely recall, had offered me a sip of her personal supply of aqua cola.
I shouldn’t have accepted anything. My thirst had made me desperate and clumsy in thought. Now, I would have everything taken from me, my mother and so much more, unless I found the strength in my brittle, birdlike bones to fight.
Instinctively, I reached for my hip, but it was a kneejerk reaction to possible danger. I knew there was no knife. That, too, had been taken from me already. It was of no matter, though. The first generation who had ever lived in the Wasteland were forced to be creative when it came to their weapons and tools, just like the ancestors of old. The Mother would not provide me with nothing. Even sand could be a weapon, if used smartly. I just needed to force my sluggish brain to think.
I shuffled awkwardly in my place, fingers itching for something to grab at and wield, but it was my feet that wound up finding my weapon of choice. Through the thin sides of my boot, I felt the pressure of a stone, which was wedged up against the cave wall, as if demanding to be used and bloodied. It was my only chance of escape, and of a life without yet another massive mistake at the hands of others.
"Where is m'mother?" I snarled, curling my nose at the pair of them and bracing myself back against the raw wall, which I used as support as I bent at the knee and snatched up the stone at my feet. The rock was smooth and large, but fit comfortably in my palm. It wasn’t ideal, wouldn’t cause much damage, especially as I was still particularly weak, but it was all I would ever have.
I seemed to have gotten the woman’s attention, but she seemed hesitant to respond. I’m sure that if her teeth weren’t as pointy as they had been sharpened to be, she might have even bitten her lip.
I could not afford to be passive in the face of adversity. I mustered a shaky breath, stuck out my slight chest, and raised the rock above my head. That move got her eyes on me again in seconds.
"Where is m'mother, I said?!" I repeated with further ferocity, coiling my hand back over my shoulder as I prepared myself to throw the stone. If she so much as made a move to hurt me again, I would let loose, and that toothy smile would be no more by my hand.
The woman got moving at my echoing of the question, and instantly sprung herself from the man’s grip in order to swiftly move towards me, quick but careful. Her hands were on the rock almost as quickly as mine were, though I was of sound mind enough to turn frantically away from her strong hands before she had a chance to get a grip on my only means of survival.
"That's enough, no need to get hysterical!” the woman said, raising her voice over the sound of our collective struggle. For someone who was so keen on holding me in her arms during what seems like moments ago, she seemed awfully nervous around me when I turned wild. “Give Dune the rock now!"
Just as I moved to tuck my elbows against my ribs and curl up against myself like a corpse gone stiff, the man caught my attention behind the woman. He had not given me a moment’s rest, either, and though I could tell that he was attempting to taunt me, I couldn’t find it in my grey bits to find the source of his insult. I watched him, wide-eyed and tight-knuckled, as he bared his red tongue to me, tossed back his head, picked up the bowl he had been attempting to grab earlier, and tilted its contents past his dried lips.
I hadn’t been sure what exactly was in the bowl until a mass of pale, squirming creatures fell from the shallow depth of the metal pit, looking almost like a dead man’s teeth at a quick glance. He chewed them harshly, with a gnashing of his teeth so beastly that he nearly grew scales and a tail in that moment. I had never noticed that the lizard of a man’s cheek was so horrifically split until a lucky few of the crawling maggots managed to fall from his mouth and only the bedding below him, their little legs rolling clumsily as they attempted to get off of their backs.
Why was the sight of maggots so simultaneously infuriating and saddening at once? Since when did I give this stranger so much power over me? Seeing him find so much pleasure in the thought of seeing my misery only made me fight the woman squeezing me around the middle harder. I would not be crushed again.
The woman was reaching around and attempting to stick her fingers between my hand and the rock, but kept yanking and moving my weapon further and further away the more she tried to grapple me. She now came about me from my chest, perhaps thinking that if she grabbed the rock with one hand and pushed at my chest with the other, she would be able to disarm me. Little did she know that we were both equally as stubborn.
I ended up with my face practically pressed against her chest as she forced herself close, perhaps hoping that if she could get a solid enough grip on the wall, then she could use the extra force she was using to push off from the stone to get my newfound tool away from me. We both reeked of sweat and tasted the salts of our skins on our tongues as we tussled, but it was something I saw on the woman that alerted me to the fact that something wasn’t quite right.
A single, silvery strand of hair was stuck to the collar of her vest, curled tightly despite having lost its place on its owner’s scalp. I knew that hair; I had brushed that hair for years. That was my mother’s hair, my Maude’s, and this woman was wearing a strand of it like a forgotten patch.
Mother, Mother, that hair—I had dragged her by that hair, through the sand and dust and critters. I had popped off her finger after her corpse had gotten too rotten, and that’s why I had moved to moving her along by the scalp. I remembered. I remembered, and my good memory had never been more of a damn curse until that very second.
That’s why the man was taunting me with maggots. Because, by the time I had arrived here, the flies were already eating her.
Maude was gone.
Whether or not I screamed on purpose, to frighten the woman, or because my grey bits simply couldn’t find another way to deal with the trauma, I couldn’t know. My throat and mind were raw from the news. The woman had never taken the time to ask me what she wanted done with Maude’s body. She didn’t even care! If I didn’t bury Maude right, the Mother would never accept her into the eternal kingdom! The woman and the man were clearly unbelievers! They were forsaking Maude to another life in the Wasteland if they didn’t let me get to her before she became bones!
I went blank-headed in my rage. Without warning, without thought, without even an inkling of knowledge, I raised my booted foot and slammed it harshly into the woman’s stomach, forcing her back and away from me. She grunted harshly at the impact, stumbling backwards a handful of feet, but managing to stay on her feet as she hunched over and grabbed at her abdomen. The man behind her roared and squirmed in his seat, though he made no move to come and help the woman or aid her in the fight. He just seemed eager at the idea of violence, at the thought that one of us might end up injured or dead. At this point, I don’t even think he had a preference as to who kicked the bucket. If he did, it was achingly hard to tell.
I raised the rock above my head with weak arms, but I stiffened my muscles and readied myself for impact. The moment she looked up, she would get her eyes ripped out. Or, perhaps I could leave one of them in, to assure she saw what it looked like when I devoured the other of her pair of greens.
"Where did you put it?!" I demanded, ignoring the sensation of saliva dripping from my parted lips as I roared. "Where is my mother’s body?! Give it to me!"
She tilted her head up at me; I closed my eyes and struck.
No scream reached my ears, and my hands didn’t even reach an impact point. A tight, squeezing pressure was forming around my wrists, though as I was opening my eyes to figure what the hell had just happened to me, I was violently turned like a child in the womb and shoved back against the wall, this time with my hands pressed behind my back.
The woman had managed to separate my wrists and turn me around, but she did not account for my tight grip. I didn’t let go or relent, not even for a second, despite the pressure she was forcing onto me with the natural weight of her full body. She was crushing me against the wall, perhaps trying to cut off my air supply to some degree, just so that she could take the rock away. What in the Mother’s name was the matter with her? She would just keep getting rocks tossed her way if she kept doing that! Why couldn’t she just bring me the body?!
"Drop it and maybe we can DISCUSS this civilized like?!” the woman pleaded, though I just snorted and spat at the thought of this crazed creature showing any glimpse of humanity. “That's no way to ask a question if ya want an answer!"
"The old hag went in the maggot farm," the man chimed in, and the callous cruelty in his tone only made me more and more distressed. How dare he fucking play with that thought?!
I began bucking and huffing in an attempt to remove the woman from me, but all I managed to do is toss my head over my shoulder to snarl at the man. I could feel the goo, tears, and my own sweat dripping down my face as I stared at him, mixing and clumping on the plains of my skull.
"I will rip your cock off and make y'suck it, War Boy, I swear t'the fuckin' Heavens! Where did y’put her?! I will skin y’alive if y'don't say! Try me! Try me!" I bellowed.
The man did not like my verbal retaliation. Without wasting a breath, he got to his feet like lightning, though something about his stance was awkward and clumsy. I had never noticed that his left leg was missing, replaced by a wooden peg. The loss of one of his lower limbs didn’t slow him down, though- he was rolling his shoulders and clearly preparing to lunge at the pair of us, to get between me and the woman so that he could have a shot at turning me to red, fleshy pulp with his fists.
The woman noticed just as he was beginning to approach. She followed by my example, and, without ever daring to let go of me, lifted her left foot and struck him right in the gut, all while hollering about him needing to urgently ‘shut his loud face’. I would have laughed if I weren’t afraid she might threaten to do the same to me.
The man stalked to the other side of the cave, peg leg clicking and scraping on the stone while he grumbled, both in irritation and probably pain. I had known many folks who had lost limbs in my youth, and injuries like that never quite seemed to heal or improve, even with the aid of a fake leg to replace it. I might have even felt pity if he hadn’t previously tried to murder me.
Once the man stepped away from the pair of us, the woman began forcing all of her body weight against me. She must have been much heavier than me, but I could feel that part of it was complete muscle. She had grown up well, it was not hard to see. However, something about her skin put me off. Her right hand, the one that was surely gripping me to the point of bruising, was rough and coarse in texture, almost leathery, as if she were wearing a glove; her left hand was tight, but hardly comparable to the right, and was eerily soft. Almost as soft as my own.
The woman sighed, and I could hear the air escape her as she parted her lips, right by my ear. A feeling of dread overtook me. Before she even spoke, a part of me knew what she was going to say.
"Shh girlie, she was too chewed up by flies. All the sick was running out of her. Couldn't keep'er in here. Not with you an' the War Boy all cooked an' ill. Too risky when yir tryin'na avoid the living rot on the wounded... She'll feed ya, though. One last mother's gift. Yeah? No?"
The woman was trying to speak softly, sweetly, comforting as she leaned into the tiny girl to still her struggles. The tone of voice she used was one you could only learn from your mother.
I stopped struggling. The man scarfing down maggots... Those maggots were Maude. The only person I could ever completely trust. And she is gone, not because she sacrificed herself for the better of her daughter, but because she couldn't live long enough to make the choice and it was made for her. The Mother will never accept her into the Eternal Kingdom, now. Maude will never suckle at the Mother’s breast. I had failed Maude as a daughter.
I ripped myself away from the woman by forcing my hips backwards roughly and causing her to stumble back just a few steps. I didn’t wait to give her a chance to look up at me. There was no mercy, not in this war.
I violently began thwacking her in the head with the stone, not letting her move away. I was wailing, I was snarling, and my plan was not to let her leave alive. She had taken the Mother from Maude; I was going to do the same to her.
Crack. Crack. Crack. Every sound that the rock made against the hardness of her skull made me feel weaker and sicker. Every bruised and red mark I was making was making my eyes leak. Every spray of spit against my face only made my mouth drier. But I could not give in now. Not after I had lost everything.
"Y’ruined m’mother! She’ll never suckle! Never, never, never!" I bellowed, the aqua cola in my eyes forcing my aim off. At this point, I was aiming for anything- the face, the shoulders, the jaw- but I was too weak to do very much damage.
My blows with the rock were becoming softer and less aggressive over time. My entire body was shaking as I continued my attempts to injure the woman with the rock, though at a certain point it was barely tapping her. I was running on fumes.
The woman, like me, refused to give in. She grappled with me all while leaning back and trying to grasp at my wrists with one hand while the other worked hard to protect her increasingly damaged face. As my blows slowed and weakened, eventually becoming nothing but weak, almost drunken slaps, the woman harshly snatched me by the wrist. It was only then that she managed to rip my weapon from me. She tossed it away, and to my absolute horror, the stone landed in a crevice of the cave that was far too narrow for even me to squeeze through and retrieve. I was out of weapons and of options. She had won, and I had accepted that I was going to die.
Once the woman had caught her breath, she grabbed me firmly by the back of the tunic and began to shove me in the direction of what appeared to be the bedding. I was pushed towards the spot where I had woken up, which seemed both uncomfortable and inviting at once, like a rotting carcass to a starving wretch. The bedding was made of old cushions, ones that were only available to the very wealthiest of wretches, a few canvas cloths that were thrown and crumpled about as if the woman and the man had just gotten up from sleep, torn and tattered bed spreads, and handmade sleep rolls made of cut strips of old cotton clothes woven together and tied around what looked to be like spare masses of fabric that were soft enough to provide cushion.
I was shoved to my knees onto the mats, whimpering all the while. Everything made sense; the avoidance in the beginning to tell me where my mother had gone; the man’s insistence on tormenting me by devouring maggots; the attempts to be soft with me when delivering the news. My mother had become maggot food, and in turn, the maggots had become a meal for the man and the woman. Why was I still alive? What were their intentions in healing me?
I was certainly not meant to be a breeder for the man. He clearly hated me, and had no intention of getting close to me unless it was to maim me in one form or another. Women rarely wanted breeders, but this woman was all too comfortable with getting close to me and touching me. Nothing about this situation made sense, and it now looked as if even the woman and the man were realizing that.
The woman was left huffing and panting at me once she managed to sit me down in one place, with no indication that there had ever been a fight but a swollen and bleeding lip, a scraped abrasion on her forehead, and a cut that ran through the far end of her left eyebrow that would surely scar.
"...No! Mumsy, Dune don't want to talk about it! Don't wanna hear it!" she suddenly snarled, turning towards a darkened corner of the cave, a place shadowed in darkness with an unlit camping lamp near it. It was true—I remembered the woman talking to voices when we had first met. It hadn’t become any less disturbing.
Once the woman had responded to the voice in her head, she and the man exchanged a look I couldn’t quite piece apart. The man was standing on the other side of the nest of bedding and sheets, bowl in hand, looking on to the woman impatiently. The woman, irritated, snatched it from his hand almost the moment after she had first spotted it, and slapped his large paw away when he reached to grab it back. A couple of maggots were still sitting at the bottom of the bowl, but that didn’t matter. The woman was fulfilling her end of the deal- if I breathed, he would eat.
"Best leave the girlie be, Duck,” the woman said, avoiding my gaze as she walked towards the darkness of the caves, presumably to fetch more maggots. “Bad time, it is."
She was swallowed by the darkness of the caverns, leaving me and the man entirely alone together.
The moment the woman left the scene, I hurried off of the bed, all while sniffling, in order to crawl frantically towards the other end of the cave, towards the corner I had hid myself in upon waking up on the very bedding I had just been dragged to. I had spoken out of turn, and the consequences of that could be dire if I overstepped the boundaries the cave-dwellers had subliminally put in place for me again.
I only had one choice left- with any possibility of being free again ripped from me, all I could do was pray. Pray to the goddess that had taken my mother away, pray for salvation, for something to kill me swiftly before something else got me and claimed me as their own.
My prayers were choppy and broken. I had learned them when I was nothing but a pup, and they had grown to become automatic after I had reached my first thousand days or so. But I added on to them, at least now. I couldn’t afford to be humble. I desperately needed a miracle. In broken sentences, I was begging for death.
"Just-- just let me have a gun, lead, I... I don't want this anymore... Please, no more... It hurts, please, it hurts..." I grabbed my own shoulders as I spoke, as if protecting my already blistered body from a sun that I was safe from but still believed was burning me. It was becoming too much to bare. I needed an out. I needed to go. I needed—
There was the man again. But this scoff was not mocking, like the others. It was dismissive. He did not believe my pain.
“Hey, WRETCH,” he called curtly, some wicked form of amusement in his voice.
I turned my head at him, thinking foolishly that he was maybe willing to listen to my prayers and deliver me to the Mother, but I had no such luck. Instead, he turned ever-so-slightly to lift the hem of his tunic in one hand; with the other, he pulled down loose bandages that were barely clinging to his left ribs, exposing the wounds beneath to me.
There was a mass of fresh scarring, covering him from arm pit down beyond how far he could pull down the bandages. The wound was only truly scarred around the edges. A thick band of flesh in the center of the wound was still scaled with putrid yellow and black scabbing, scabbing that had clearly barely had an opportunity to heal. By the looks of it, the wound had never truly gotten an opportunity to heal, which is why it was still looking so painful. I couldn’t imagine how many times it had gotten infected, or how many times he had nearly died. It was almost impressive, in a morbid, graphic way, to see him still walking about.
"Better quit your bitching before I give you something to piss an' moan about," he snorted, tugging the bandages back up and even taking the opportunity to spit at me despite my distance. "You don't even know what pain is, not yet."
That comment was perhaps the most insulting of all. I wanted to hurry over to that crevice, grab the rock right back, and fling it at the man, even if I had to break every bone in my body to do it. Hit him right in his infected wound, now that he had so kindly shown me where it was, and watch him squirm and holler with the impact. But… I couldn’t find my strength.
I was tired. Too tired even to deal with the ignorant likes of him.
As I laid down, taking the opportunity to curl up and protect myself from further injury, all I could manage to do was stare into his cruel eyes. I couldn’t even find it in me to spit back at him.
No more. I was done with playing games with the man. I would not let myself be influenced by him again, no matter how harshly he annoyed me. The man didn’t want me close, and the woman will give up on me eventually. Perhaps, if I was lucky, the woman would even stop treating my wounds and let me fester and pass.
I shivered harshly as I turned to face the raw wall- the rock was moist from the aqua cola that was spilling from every one of its cracks and orifices, but it was not a comfort from the heat. I was cold, and to be cold in the Wasteland meant nighttime or a sickness strong enough to kill. At this point, I couldn’t tell which one of the options it was, but I refused to ask for a blanket. Instead, I gathered my long hair around me and blanketed myself in that. If they want to keep me until I passed, then I would be croaking on my own terms.
The grinding of teeth that were not my own kept me from sleep. The man, far from me but still so damn close, was making himself known, but I didn’t move. When he couldn’t get my attention that way, he started creeping towards me, though the sound of his peg leg tapping against the stone and echoing off of the walls made his stalking fall flat.
He leaned down when he got to my side, his hot, rancid breath wetting my ear. When I didn’t bother to look up, too exhausted to think of a reason to retaliate, he kicked some of the loose pebbles on from the ground. They sprayed over my scorched shoulder, which made me flinch harshly against the contact, but I was stubborn about it. I sat still.
"The nutter is a cannibal, you know,” he said, so close that I could nearly hear the pounding of his blood pump, or perhaps it was my own. “She'll hack you up, cook you on spits, chew your scrawny little bones to splinters with her fangs... If you die, and you probably will."
He scuttled away like a venemous creature hurrying away from a boot, and I heard the air escaping layers of folded fabric as he plopped down onto his bed. All the while, he cackled, his laugh filling the entire space, down every one of the passages and misshapen natural tunnels of my new prison.
Only then did I know that there was no way out.
A week and a half came and went like the flow and drinking of our water. The girl's skin looked better, not so red, at the peeling stage now and blisters shrinking down each day. Still, whether her face cleared or not, she looked like a corpse which hasn't yet been told that it was supposed to stop moving.
Ten days after I found her, I was up by the maggot farm, looking into the hollows where her mother's eyes had once been. The old woman had seen hard years. You could tell time had been cruel even now when her stench could reach out and strangle you and her rotten flesh could make a starving dingo toss up. She must have been as old as Wilson when she croaked.
I sieved up the crawlers from her juices near the bottom of the big rotter bin and gave them a good rinse with every drop in my canteen, and back down to the garage I went. A little fire and few tosses around an old skillet to stun them and they were ready for eating. I liked them to keep wiggling a little, meant they were still soft and juicy. I split them up between two bowls, having already eaten my share as I cooked, and returned to my lovely guests. Slit took his meal with no complaints, yet. The minute I emptied the last of the lizard jerky we had into the girl's bowl, that made him all mean again.
"Why the hell does she get all the lizard?" he snarled in my ear.
"Because- Well look'it her, Duck," I motioned to her as if we didn't already know she was beginning to waste away.
Slit snorted, muttering under his breath as he turned back to eat and keep working on his project leg. He sat there in nothing but his bandages with a rat holed blanket around his lap to give himself some dignity while he tinkered with parts he hoped to assemble into a better false leg. He got like this a couple times a week. Slit was almost cyclical. He'd have an extra mean day, a quiet day when all you could get out of him was a halfhearted groan, then a day where he worked furiously on something with what few tools and materials I willing to let him have. I wasn't so much worried that he'd craft a weapon to do me harm, he seemed well beyond that phase. I had a suspicion that he'd try to do himself harm somehow if he could sharpen steel and hone a blade. I wouldn't even give him shears to cut leather scraps. He could only struggle with the kiddie safety scissors I'd given him to use.
Every once in a while he uncovered his thickly bandaged stump as he tried to pattern a new leather socket around it. He grumbled something about not having enough material to do what he wanted with it, and I considered asking Wilson what he might have.
We were due for a visit anyway. Slit's side was starting to smell funky again and the girl... Well, a single problem couldn't possibly be to blame for all of it. She had some kind of scalp rash, all sorts of phobias too. The girl even eyed the water I handed her as if she was worried I'd poisoned it. I'd given in to that and began taking the first sip of every cup she got just to prove it was good to drink. She clearly had a serious problem with War Boys, too. Spat at Slit every day, antagonized him, told him he'd suffer in his next life which worried me that she was undoing all of the work I'd done trying to get that wild man tamed up a bit. She was rail thin when I found her, now she looked like a skeleton but I knew why and how to fix that. Just had to get the cure in her, which was easier said than done. As long as she'd been here she refused to eat a full meal and only passed a few morsels between her lips if I sat there and watched her for hours on end. I was fast reaching the end of my patience as she faster approached the end of her life at her own hand.
I set the bowl down and nudged it closer to where she sat, curled up on herself against the wall. I spied something tiny wiggling up the front of the tunic she wore, tiny stumpy legs and an arrow shaped backside on the miniscule critter. Could only be lice. That explains all the digging she'd been doing at her tangled up mop of hair.
"Girlie?" I tried, but she wouldn't answer, of course.
That girl just balled herself up tighter. Been asking all week for as little as a name so I didn't have to call her 'girlie' or 'foundling'. I could see her spine poking up against the decrepit and filthy scrap of cloth she wore. Her shoulder blades were worryingly pronounced, too. This was more than starved. This woman looked like death had warmed up enough to look nearly human again. Ducking down and inching closer, I was trying to see around the mess of hair at the eyes, but she was good at hiding those too.
"...aren't ya hungry, girlie? Don't it hurt not to eat?"
That got her attention, if only for a minute. Scornful eyes is what I got, brown ten days ago when I found her in the sun, now so dark with anger that they seemed as deep and black as great pits in the earth. She cut her gaze away quickly, lips twitching and bristling around her yellow teeth as she felt around in her bowl without looking. Her fingers pinched around a bit of lizard and plucked it up from the slowly dying crawlers, giving it a shake to free those which clung to the morsel. She only teased at eating, pulling at the thready fibers of the dried scaly flesh. It was agonizing to watch her torture herself with mere tastes like this.
The next time she looked at me, her meaning in the stare could not be missed. 'I ate. Now, fuck off'. Then, seemingly to create a reason for me to sod off, she pointedly scratched at her head so that debris trapped in the nest of tangles fell to the ground around her bare feet and bony rump. I swore I saw things crawling in the dandruff and suddenly felt itchy all over.
I rolled back on my heels to sit closer to the war boy. He was smellier but not infested.
I wanted to frown, be and look upset, but I didn't want to spur her into a complete state of defense. "Why do you not eat?"
Slit snorted from nearby, as if asking this question was funny to him. I leveled a glare back at him before looking to the girl. Goddess he enjoyed antagonizing her, especially when I was trying to get her ice coated facade to thaw a little. I crept forward again, keeping low so that she wouldn't spook and so I could see her face. This tiny woman had a talent for shrinking herself down to nothing but conspicuous ball of human in a corner.
"You have to eat. Gettin' mighty thin now." I chided, and finally, got a real reaction.
She moaned loudly, annoyed and maybe voicing the agony she was surely in. She unfurled herself just enough to straighten a worryingly thin arm to push me with, but I was too solid to be moved easily. I could only cock my head at her, feeling the sadness warp my face. She was so weak, and it hurt this Scav's heart to feel it.
The woman appeared to give in, and excitement gripped me! Joy! She was reaching into her dish! Pressing her fingers eagerly through the crawlies and meaty bits! Oh... Huh. She was picking out the lizard jerky, setting them in a most neat row by her bare toes. I watched, smile falling, as she lifted he bowl of maggots and promptly dumped them to the dirty floor between us. I had let my hopes fly too high. I sighed at the spoiled food.
When I lifted by gaze to meet her eyes, I saw rage, rage and that bowl lifted high over her head. Oh boy did it smart flying across my skull. I had a hand clapped over my forehead when I heard the bowl clatter, turning in time to see that she'd thrown it at Slit after wanging me with it. He roared, threads of spittle expelled from between his teeth as he chucked it back at her with everything he had.
The bowl didn't hit her, no, he was too smart to get me cross with him again for bruising the girl. It clanged on the wall so loudly that my ears rang and the bowl had a new dent in it.
"Should've slit her fucking neck and put her in the maggot farm when she still had meat on her!" He shouted, voice like a clap of thunder.
My breath left me in huffs. I had to try scooping the precious maggots back into the bowl, I couldn't quite get all of them. Like a twisted ritual, I slid the girl's meal toward Slit and he picked it up without bothering to turn back and look. This song and dance was getting old.
Now the girl had to be dealt with. "A scav wants to see that scaly food gobbled up right quick! She'll watch you till it's gone."
She didn't respond to me, she never did. Instead she spat at Slit, who lifted his middle finger for her before wiping away the slime she shot at his shoulder. Now she just curled up again, determined to ignore us and the food. She shivered, already overexerted by her tiny explosion of action. She was going to die, and soon if nothing could be done to prevent it.
I couldn't help the ire in my mood as I watched the girl a moment longer, holding my trigger finger between my sharps. I considered Slit's words. Maybe planting lead in her brain would have been better for everyone involved. Mercy isn't always a mercy. For some reason that reminded me of Wilson again.
I made a snap decision and left this room. It always made me anxious, leaving two angry things alone together. I went the maggot farm.
It was up there that I'd hidden the girl's knife, Slits things too a hundred and seventy odd days ago. Why there? Because the stench kept Slit away from it and the nameless woman certainly didn't have the strength to make the climb. It was small, looked like a dirk next to my own seven inch blade on a nice robust handle. I left the room quickly, I don't particularly like lingering near the stink either, and touched the blade with my thumb as I approached the ladders. It was dull, and I was forming a plan. I returned to the chamber where water drips and bodies sleep with a mission, plopping myself down next to Slit. Under three rolls of fabric which serve as my pillow, there lay a whetstone.
The sound of stone scraping over metal to gently file the edge to a razor cut through the silence of the room. A sharp blade is a safer blade, after all.
By the time the girl noticed what I had, Slit had already been watching carefully, l licking his lips near lewdly at the weapon in my hands. He hasn't seen a knife that wasn't my own since he got here, and I never let him near it.
"That's mine," She rasped in a most pitiable mewl. What a great treat to hear her speak instead of shriek.
I didn't acknowledge her. Part of that was spite because she hardly acknowledged either of us but to scream at Slit, but I also wanted to tempt her closer. She crept like a spider, spindly little legs and bones surly forged of glass as she followed the wall to sit at at the distance of two arm lengths from me. I could see the gears and cogs up in her head working behind her eyes, I knew she was too bright to think I'd give this back unless she performed a task for it.
Slit, though? The moment I raised the blade to acknowledge the fact that the girl recognized it, the battle fodder's chin lifted with the movement so that his eyes could follow the weapon. I ignored him, looking to the girl instead.
"You want this?" I asked, leaning and moving as if I might hand it over, but pulling it back toward myself at the last heartbeat. "You have to trade Dune for it. You have to eat those lizard bits, ALL of 'em, and then you have to let Dune take you to Wilson's to get you all patched up."
I heard Slit's mouth popping open audibly by my ear and soon to follow were the sneers. "How come SHE'S getting her shit back! I've been here longer! I should get my shit back first!"
"Shush!" I didn't mean to snap at him, but I couldn't take my eyes off the girl now that I had her attention.
Slit was grinding his teeth and snarling like a savage at being hushed. The girl didn't seem too pleased either.
"Fuck your deal. Last I heard that name, y'were draggin' my mother's body outta this spot." There were those squinted eyes and that nasty attitude again. Her eyes only seemed to harden upon the knife as she came to some conclusion. "...no lizard. Nothin' I haven't caught m'self. Y'want me t'eat? I'll hunt m'own tucker and I get the knife after I see that organic. Otherwise, put those teeth t'good use and bite me, cunt, I know I'll be in your crawlie farm sooner than later."
I was getting real sick of that word, cunt. That's a magnum word, one Slit hadn't even used although it could be that he didn't know it. It was only a matter of time before he picked it up too.
Ugh, I could spit flames. Fine, if she didn't want to accept the deal as it was offered, then she wouldn't get the knife. I knew damn well what I was dealing with. Stubbornness, the brat didn't want to take the whole deal because she didn't want to bend to anyone's will. And certainly she was in no shape to chase down her own meals. I also did not like being pushed into rolling over. So, I shrugged, miming a kind of casual demeanor. "Well, since ya won't eat the lizard, an' Dune has no use for this dinky poker..."
I stood, moving to a narrow crack in the wall and shoving the shaft of dull steel into the slender crevice to get it jammed good and tight, then I pushed at the handle, threatening to snap the blade off in the wall. I maintained eye contact, applying more and more pressure. This had turned into a game of chicken. Who would win? No one. I had reached my limit of hospitality and given in to being just as pissy as my houseguests.
Slit's eyes were wide and his jaw was agape as he looked left and right between the two of us lady folk. At least someone was having a good time.
"Still not hungry, girlie? Too good for the tucker Dune whipped up?" I crowed, letting my annoyance taint my voice.
"She'll fucking break it." Slit laughed, wicked glee on his evil face as he looked to the girl. He was thoroughly entertained.
The girl, she did nothing. Maybe the sun sillies hadn't completely vacated her heat scorned head. She sat, near regal in her disheveled state, watching the blade bend under my torture.
"Break that knife or not- even if y'don't listen, even if y'snap it, I'm already layin' in m'own grave. Go on, maniac, go on. Snap it. Snap it like I know y'wanna snap me. Let's see it. Let's see how y'snapped Maude limb from limb. Fickin' brute, fuckin' sand-suckler..." She gathered herself from the ground then, standing on those emaciated legs to shiver her way back to the unforgiving rock of the spot she'd chosen for herself to sit and pointedly turned her back on me, but glared ice daggers from the corner of her left eye. I saw only death in that eye.
Something snapped but it was not the knife. It was me. I had snatched a slender wooden shaft from a pile of salvage, perhaps once a broom stick or a mop handle, and snapped it over my knee. I was tired, and infuriated. I broke the splintered halves too. It was better than giving her what she wanted, and I could snap her so easily. I left that knife hanging out of the wall, and I knew Slit was inching toward it slowly, but I had something to say. These two had pushed me that close to the edge, an unmarked line. Everyone has a fuse, and mine was long, but on the end of it was more than just one stick of dynamite.
That was too close, too close to letting the anger get the better of me and slapping the poor weak girl right across her foul mouth. I wanted to spit things, evil things, but refrained... Barely.
"Fool! Idiot even! Think Dune wanted ta snap ya? Jus' can't accept an inch of kindness, can ya? Jus, can't take a bite of food. OH NO.... Feh! Do you even value your life? Really says somethin' bout a person when a complete stranger values their life more than they do on BASE morals. Cripes!" I cried out, flabbergasted and scratching roughly at my scalp. I had to quit my raving long enough to slap the War Boy's hand away from the handle of the dirk in the wall and wrench it free of the stone before my final statement. "Ya know, it's fuckin-forkin' sad, that a War Boy is more CONGENIAL and good natured than YOU."
Slit scoffed "Eat my dick, nothin' good about my nature, Rot-head."
"Slit... Think about what you just told a scav to do with your donger. Jus' think about it." I muttered to him and he shut his mouth with a shudder.
The girl resorted back to silence, lips twisting like she had something to say but refused to let it escape her.
"This ain't kindness," she growled, finally.
All I could do was watch her dig at her head till her nails came away with lines of red under them. Great. She'd opened up her head clawing at those damn bugs.
I had to breathe. Nothing could be done for it, at least not here and not by my hand. She'd just have to wait and swallow that pride of hers when the time came to see the Scav Country doctor.
I tried to go on with my day of choring without thinking about my outburst. A large part of me already felt terrible, but that pernicious wavering in my patience kept whispering awful things. Mumsy even had things to say, she was laughing away in my head, not meaning to be cruel, but there to tell me I'd bitten off far more than I could chew.
I tidied the space, emptied the water in the collection pan into my canteen, Slit's new plastic jug to replace his shattered drinking jar, and the old red thermos -missing its lid- which the girl's water was always served in. Everyone had their water and there was just enough leftover to wash with. Slit needed a scrub down and bandage changes or else Wilson would tan my hide. Slit was grimy, and bandages on burns get nasty quick. Slit was stronger now than he had been months ago, he could fight me if he didn't want to be touched and he never wanted anything anywhere near his wounds, but he was also shit at looking after them himself. He'd sooner let his own flesh rot off than clean himself properly.
He did nothing but rumble like a revving engine and shove when I came after him with a bowl and a rag boiled sterile the night before. He knew the routine and wanted no part of it. It had been days since he last let me undo his bandages. Seemed that having the girl around made him even less apt to receive care. The last time, he only gave in once she was asleep. At one point he'd grabbed hold of the rim of the bowl and that started a game of tug-o-war. I'd had enough.
"Slit! You smell like like death! She's not in the mood for games an' wiggling all over." I'd heard Mumsy in my own voice, that tone she used when I was being difficult.
Slit paused, peered around me at the girl momentarily, but another look in my eyes and he relented. I tried to help him stand on his remaining leg, but he flung an arm out to stop me. He hated being helped and I hated watching my folk struggle.
He turned to face the wall, right arm braced against the stone and face hidden in the bend of his elbow. It doesn't start out awful, you have to get the bandages wet where they stuck to him first so that you didn't tear out scabs as you peeled back the stained linen. Oh, he shouted and cursed as always, dear painful thing, and Mumsy kept on whispering in my inner ear as I cleansed him. I used to shriek and sling around profane things too back when Mum or Wilson had to put me through this horror. I didn't want to remember, but it's hard not to with a sour skull and a man jerking under your hands with every touch. Bandages hung off him as they were undone. He'd tense and snarl, call me 'a mediocre hag who couldn't scrub a floor let alone a wound'.
He was burned badly in other areas besides his ribs. Parts of his back still had scaly patches, and the mound of his left shoulder was nearly raw looking from where his fingers would sneak under the wrappings and pick at the wound. By the end of the ordeal, he was choking back whimpers, too proud to indulge them completely, but not quite inhuman enough to be immune to the misery of this necessary torment. I knew what I wanted to say to the girl now, what I needed to spit.
"Sometimes kindness forkin' hurts, Girlie."
By then, I was as eager to ease his pain as he was to be through with this. Time for the goop to pull the sting out of his seared and infected hide. This he leaned into, quieted but still shivering. His head, although it no longer needed bandages, still needed a thin layer of the waxy salve to keep the scar from drying out. He mewled for that and nuzzled into a palm, he always did, but it was only a short reprieve from his cranky antics. His spooky calm couldn't last, not this time.
"Get dressed ducky. We have somewhere to go." I told him once fresh bandages were slapped on. We had to see Wilson today. The trip couldn't wait any longer.
It was unsettling to see the level of eagerness in the pair of cannibals that accompanied the prospect of them leaving their little grotto. The woman was stubbornly sweeping an ointment-smothered palm across the monster’s crusted wounds for a fresher barrier against the sun and the sand, which put him in a better mood. I noticed that he didn’t dare sit back down again. Like myself in the very beginning, he seemed to be swayed by the woman’s play at tenderness. There was bitterness, Mother almighty, there was... but there was something less ugly there too, hiding under his burn scars and sore stump. The idea of those two wild things having a pact of trust was anything but comforting.
Once the screaming of his wounds was satiated with the chill of the goo, the woman separated herself from the beast, in order to fetch her own layers. The woman didn’t have an extensive selection of clothing, but it was intriguing to watch her tenderly put on her vest like it was the last piece of good fabric left in the entire sour world. The embroidered scrap she wore around her shoulders was pretty, in a way, contrasting harshly against the terror of her teeth and crazed eyes. Whoever had owned it before the woman had clearly made an effort to keep it in remarkably lovely condition. The embroidered sunrise on its back was something to be envied- for a moment, the all-too-familiar image kept my worried mind from falling apart at the thought of meeting the infamous organic mechanic.
The War Boy’s struggling broke both my and the woman’s concentration. With a sigh and a grumble, probably meant to reach the voices in her head, she strode over to the beast, who was still up against the rock wall and huffing harshly as he seemingly attempted to throw on a pair of ratty trousers. He was having trouble bending to put them on without falling over, and when the woman tried to help him with that, she was shunned with snarls and swipes of a fist. She tried again to intervene by trying to slide his holed-up boot onto his remaining foot, but she nearly got kicked in the jaw for that.
The beast sniffled all the while as he tried to dress, though I could tell by the way he was avoiding eye contact and bowing his head that he was trying hard to hide it. He must have been in a tremendous pain, for such a prideful creature like him to be breaking down the way he does, akin to an overheating engine. He was more machine than man, after all, and to see him leak aqua cola left a foreign, bitter taste in my mouth.
The woman wizened up quickly enough to leave the beast to his own devices when he decided to pull on a blood-stained shirt over his bandages (if that blood was his or not, I was too afraid to ask). A large hole punctured the center of the stain. Had the woman taken pity on the man she had shot and dragged him home? I doubted as much. I got the feeling that if this woman let lead loose, she was far past a stage of regret.
With a roll of his shoulders and a raise of his chin, as well as a proper loud sniff to suck back any snot that his tearful display might have left behind, I could tell that the beast’s nastiness had returned in a flash. His eyes never once fell on me, and it was on purpose. He was avoiding me on purpose all while making sure I knew that I was the bane of his very existence.
"Why the hell do I have to go?" he seethed, his voice a smack to the senses in the natural silence of the cavern.
The woman’s normally smiling face turned to that of an exhausted mother as she glanced my way and frowned.
"In case she gets violent in the sled and Dune needs some big bloke to restrain a delusional one while she drives,” she said, clearly having no mercy for my feelings. I couldn’t tell if I should feel relieved or insulted.
The beast’s ruined lips twisted in an ugly grin, and I could hear a cackle forming in his chest, but he smothered it before it slipped past the barrier of his teeth. "Delusional. As if you're not."
The woman rolled her green eyes. "Not in the mood for the insults, Ducky."
Pompous asshole that he was, the beast’s face morphed into one of pride, as if he had just caught himself a fat slithering creature for dinner. "I'm not going... Not unless you trade me."
“Eh?” The woman recoiled in confusion as she tightened the belt around her hips. My stomach flipped, and the curly hair on the back of my neck raised in fear. I knew a rotten deal in the making.
"I want MY shit back, Loon,” he snarled with sickening delight, finally managing to step into his once-forgotten boot and tying it up sloppily by leaning on his peg leg.
"I don't BREAK under pressure like YOU do, Pedestrian. My shit, or I don't fuckin’ go."
The woman growled fiercely, both at the deal and something bothering her up in the grey bits. My indifference regarding the snapping of my knife and her own failure to get me to listen to her in the slightest must have bothered her. I could nearly see her cracking beneath the influence of the War Boy’s words. I pleaded at her through my thoughts. Please, no. He’ll slaughter us. He’ll slaughter me.
"You get ONE of your sharps back. One. For this favor," she conceded curtly, before turning and disappearing into one of the other pockets of the cave, leaving the beast and I alone.
I slid my hands over my face and rubbed harshly, forcefully enough for stars to explode behind my closed eyes. Things were taking a turn for the worst, if that was even possible. I resisted the urge to begin sobbing, no matter how hard my gutty works twisted and wrenched at the thought of my dear Maude, and the place I had left behind, all for a few sips of aqua cola a day.
How could this possibly be worth it? How, even in my state of near-death, could have thought that this game of kill-or-no-kill would be sustainable to my own sanity in the long run? How long would it be until I carved up my own face or started speaking to voices that only murmured to me?
Before too long, the beast had finished dressing and was strapping his prosthesis to his belt to keep it up, smug and pleased with himself as ever. I nearly expected him to start praising himself out loud, that ugly insect of a man. Dune returned too, seemingly timed to know how long his daily dressing routine would take; her impressive blade knife was strapped to her leg, and my own, tucked between her belt and waistband. Her rifle was slung against her back casually, as one would carry a tent or young child around. It was devastating without it even needing to be shouldered, a stiff spring ready to jump to attention, much like its wielder.
"C'mon then,” she said, and though she looked at me pointedly when I did not move, I wasn’t coaxed. The beast was already hobbling after her, and I knew better than to intercept the path of the human war machine.
As the two of them set out for the sled monstrosity, I felt as if I was being called to face a firing squad. The woman was too distracted by my failing health to understand that I was not avoiding the maggots out of spite. All she cared about was fixing me up, getting me into a better bodily condition. But why? Feeding the War Boy could not be easy. For a man that was closer to metal than flesh in character, guzz and lots of it would have to come from somewhere to keep him running. Back at the Citadel, back among the Wretched, no one was kind without ulterior motives. If keeping myself from getting too plump meant keeping myself from becoming the beast’s next bowl of maggots, then I would do it, no matter what this doctor had to say... even if it meant returning to the Wasteland in the next life.
The Mother was good and patient goddess, but I knew that even she would not accept a follower who simply starved to death to suckle at her breast in the Eternal Kingdom. Suckling was to be earned, but it was of no matter to me. She would understand my plight. One more life in this hellscape... and an eternity of milk and honey.
All I knew for certain was that I was too weak to resist going with them. Ignoring food was one thing, peaceful protest in some form or another, but disobeying out of sheer difficulty would lead to nothing but broken bones. The woman and her beast could just toss me into the sled monstrosity if I disobeyed. I could handle the pain of starvation, but I did not wish to die of infection. That was useless suffering. So, I stood, clutching myself tightly and rocking myself as if I were a babe. While the other two headed to the exit of the cavern, I walked methodically behind before being swallowed into the darkness of the cave passages.
My heart was racing, and I tasted blood coating my tongue like a sick prophecy.
I shuffled hesitantly in the dark, the sound of the beast’s peg leg clicking being the only thing that gave me any sense of direction. There were twists and turns I didn’t remember following when I was first led into the main compartment of the cave, but I was running on fumes, then. The passage made me scores more nervous now than it had back then. When I caught my foot on a loose stone in the dark and went stumbling, there was nothing I could do but flail wildly to catch myself on the surprisingly slick stone.
Almost falling and breaking my nose wasn’t the most nerve-wracking thing about the trip- it was half-impaling myself on the beast’s sharp elbow. The touch was enough to spur the beast into a frenzy. He instinctively shoved back into my ribs sternly and knocked me sideways against the wall, promptly scrambling my grey bits and making my ribs sore. The worst part? He barely had to twitch his elbow to get me to move.
"Don't fuckin’ touch me! Don't Even LOOK at me with your filthy Wretch eyes!" He barked at me promptly before turning back on his trail, into the light of the better-lit garage, tugging at his abdominal bandages.
He must have still been sore after I had watched the woman scrub him clean. Why he had to retaliate by nearly crushing me like a lizard bone, I would never understand. I would just have to keep my guard up.
The beast and the woman both made it onto the sand sled before I had even gotten within a ten-foot radius of the thing. The War Boy struggled slightly on account of his peg leg, but both he and the women were swift and fit. I hurried my pace up (no use in getting either one of them in an even pissier mood due to my slowness), grabbed the edge of the sand sled, pushed up with my arms... but I didn’t lift myself all the way. Rather, I couldn’t. I tried lifting myself again, but my muscles didn’t want to cooperate; they trembled and shook beneath me, and I could feel myself growing tired from my few attempts.
The woman seemed sympathetic to might plight and ended up reaching down to take my hands in her own, all while softly cooing at me as if she found me pitifully adorable. The feeling of her mismatched hands- one smooth, one scarred- left me shaken and flighty once I was up onto the sled. I couldn’t help but recoil harshly at the sensation of her strange palms. I took a seat at the back of the sand sled, just in case I ever felt the need to duck and roll into the sand in the near future. Who knows if that woman would take my distaste for her hands seriously or not.
I hadn’t a clue where our destination was, and I didn’t think to ask before the roar of the sled deafened the three of us. We moved at a steady speed up and out of the cave on a hill of sand and emerged from into the bright sun, which I hadn’t seen in days. Not only was the obnoxious purring sound of the fan keeping me from asking for directions, but the sun burning my eyes kept me from doing anything but squint blindly at the beige-yellow sand. With my limited sense of direction, the trip felt as if it was taking hours, but I was blessed in that the beasts decided not to bother me while we were all moving. The woman couldn’t pull any tricks, either, not while she was driving. It was the most peaceful things had been during the entirety of my stay with these strangers.
I jerked awkwardly onto my palms when the sand sled slowed and eventually slowed to a stop. By that point, my eyes had adjusted to the brightness outside, but ears were still humming with the echo of the fan in my grey bits. The woman and the beast hopped out of the sled and started making their way towards a hill in the distance, upon which sat a single, prone figure reclined in a long chair.
I could not see exactly who the figure was- they had a tall stack of paper folded in front of their face, keeping their features hidden from me- but I could decipher that this was the so-called organic that the woman was drawling on about. Had he looked over my mother before she had passed? I could only assume so... had he been the one that killed her?
I crept closely behind the woman, too fearful to approach by my lonesome, but it was not the lazy organic that worried me as we got closer and closer. It was the sounds coming from them. It sounded like the sound one would make when tapping the lid of a hollow tin can, over and over, as well as the pitchy shrill of what could only be described as whistling. Then, out of nowhere, a voice- one of a man, one that spoke in an easy rhyme. When the man began to speak, the figure behind the papers began tapping his foot to the beating of the tin. What in the Mother’s eternal kingdom was this shit?! Was I going crazy, turning into the woman, hearing voices with no meat suits to attach them to?
As our group of three grew even closer, I could hear that the figure behind the papers was speaking in turn with the disembodied voice. He seemed to be able to predict what the voice in my head was going to say, which struck me to the core and make me scramble at my hips for a knife that I knew the woman had on her hip.
"...mm.. Where beer does flow an' men chunder... Can't you hear the... Heheh... Marmaduke." Oh, the organic found my insanity funny! How could he know what I was hearing, thinking? This was it, then, what not eating for a few days led to. Despite resigning myself to my newfound insanity, I quietly slapped the heel of my palm to my temple a few times. Maybe this was a dream! I just had to wake up, that was all, wake up and fetch myself something to drink, and quick.
The woman whistled out of time with the cacophony in my head, which seemed to silence the organic instantly. Though I was pleased that he had gotten out of my head, I couldn’t relish in the partial return of my sanity. Crumpling the long papers in one hand, the figure stood slowly with a stumble and a grunt, and with a bit of fumbling, he pointed a loaded gun downhill at us. I suppose this wasn’t a dream, then, but a nightmare.
Our assailant was eerie not in his ability to wield a weapon but in his surprising capacity to keep the gun study in his hands despite his age. Fuck, was this man old. As he squinted into the sun to look down at us, his wrinkled face folded harshly like the papers in his hands, particularly around his ancient eyes. Even his cheeks were sunken, though not to the point of looking corpselike, like other men I had seen during my few years. He looked like a portion of cracked earth, with lines so deep that I was surprised sand wasn’t pouring out of them with every twitch of his muscles. His hair was a shocking white against the nasty brown and blue of the earth and sky, buzzed short and neat, but his minimal facial hair still had a speckling of darker hair amid his otherwise shocked, pale fur. He surely must have been young, once, but there was no indication of a possible youth outside of his brown eyes. They were unsettling in their juvenile appearance. He had something in them that the War Boy had when he was eating a particularly fat maggot. I didn’t like that, not one bit.
Once I registered that there was no way for me to protect myself against the old maniac in terms of weapons, I did the next best thing and found a shield. Without letting myself pause and think, I screeched violently hooked my crooked arm around the woman’s burnt neck and pulled back harshly, until my chest was flushed against her back. I wasn’t going to get shot. That wasn’t how I was going to go out, not like a target.
The woman didn’t seem to think I was much of a threat. After struggling to hold back her giggles, she tossed her head back in my grip and chortled heartily at my attempt at survival. Damn sharped-tooth fucker.
"Got some self-preservation instinct after all! Suck THAT, Ducky," she shouted with glee through her cackles.
The War Boy rolled his eyes and adjusted himself on his good foot. “That doesn’t mean anything,” he said absently. I had heard them lately, betting on whether I was going to cark it from a lack of desire to thrive. The woman had always insisted I would make it; the beast maintained otherwise. Both were equally as irritating.
The old man, having been startled harshly but now seemingly recognizing the woman’s easy demeanor, tossed his tall, pale papers into the sand and plopped back down into his seat with exhaustion. He was clutching his chest, heaving harshly with the shock, but didn’t put down the gun to my great dismay. At least it wasn’t pointed at us, anymore- the dangerous end was pointed skywards, now.
"You lil’ bastards scared the shit outta me," the old man exclaimed, taking a moment to reach down to a tiny dusty-coloured box in the sand at his feet that I hadn’t noticed before. He thumbed at it firmly, and with a simple click... the disembodied voice quieted, as did the bangs and whistles.
I released a sigh that was half-trapped in my throat, and my arm fell from the woman’s neck. It was my turn to clutch at my own chest, now. Before-Time shit, it never ceased to mess with my head. Mother, what Pa wouldn’t give to trade for something that spat out noise like the organic’s box did... functional crap was always worth an arm and a leg.
"This the girl you been talkin' about?" The old man interrupted the woman’s cackling as he jutted his chin at me. As he spoke, I could see that he barely had any teeth left, just his top sharps and four along his bottom gums. Poor old fool.
The woman wiped tears from her eyes and spoke for me. “Who else?” She seemed to be in a much brighter mood now that we had left that watery grave of hers.
When the old man’s unsettling eyes, eyes that looked as if they had been plucked from the face of a newborn pup, fell on me, I couldn’t help but instinctively back up to put some distance between myself and him. Unfortunately, that led me to back up right into the beast’s chest. Without bothering to warn me, he grunted loudly and clapped a paw over the back of my head, which shoved me forward. I was in front of the woman, now, right under the old man’s scrutinizing gaze. I held my head tall. No use trembling now.
"...did y'see m'mother?" I asked, bitter and stale. At this point, I was hoping beyond hope that maybe I was wrong; maybe Maude wasn’t dead when I dragged her body to the woman's spot. I had been so irritable and ill, then, there was no way of confirming if my memory was accurate or not except to ask.
I cocked my sharp chin at the woman to clarify when the old man raised his eyebrows at me in confusion. "Or did she jus' cut her up without a thought?"
The woman, who had now come to join me at my side, visibly hardened as I spoke. So much for her improved mood, I had made her rotten with words, like a corpse would rot under the sun.
"She was so rotten that her head began to fall off when Dune was carrying her up the ladders,” the woman said, sharp teeth snapping harshly. “And you were covered in the maggots from her corpse when a scav washed you. There was no point in bringing a corpse to a doctor."
We scowled at one another for a good while. Oh, the urge to smack that ugly mouth of hers was so strong, I was so tempted, but before I could do so much as twitch my fingers, the old man loudly cleared his throat in order to catch out attention. He was cringing, but simultaneously waving us up the hill.
"Y'all git down there first, or else you'll be stuck waitin' on me all day..." His advice was awkward, but the War Boy took it eagerly. With an urgent hobble, he shoved both me and the woman apart roughly and dragged himself up the hill, his peg leg being of little help for his journey.
The woman began climbing the hill too, but in one last, stubborn stand, I stayed perfectly still. Fuck her, fuck everyone. I would not let that doctor fatten me up just so that I could die in that woman’s maggot farm. Unfortunately for me, the woman had little patience for my revolution of one; she turned back, grabbed my wrist harshly, and tugged me towards the crest of the hill.
At the top of the hill was an open latch, that led down into a dark hole I did not want to discover alone. The woman was smart about things- she went down first, and I could hear her feet hitting the metallic rungs of a ladder as she descended. If I didn’t want to come down willingly, then I would be forced to suffer the wrath of the bitter War Boy if I lingered too long, and he was already sour. We had beaten him to the top of the hill, after all, and he would have no qualms with shoving me down the pit. Smart bitch, she was.
I followed somewhat quickly, unused to the slide of metal and nearly falling a time or two, and I was relieved when my feet hit the ground. In the dim light, I could roughly make out my surroundings- the old man had dug himself an underground cavern system. The first room I had hit was lined with shelving units, upon which sat scores and scores of crates, bins, and boxes, along with some other relics I couldn’t recognize. The sheer mass of stuff laying around rivaled the woman’s personal collection of stolen trinkets, but none could compare to the metal frame holding up a sublime mattress a ways into the room. Oh, mercy, did I want a nap on that beauty. It was calling at me, and I shuffled towards it eagerly despite the woman warning me not to touch anything.
Something else caught my attention before I dared sully the precious mat with my mites. On one of the shelves that was stuck into the dirt wall was something surprisingly pretty, something that even in the relative dark of the room stuck out to me. It looked like a moth, but its wings were much larger, and they were a spectacular, rich blue, like nothing I had ever seen. I stumbled towards the pretty insect, which had been pinned behind a cracked sheet of glass, presumably to keep it from getting damaged, and I made a point to willfully swipe my hand at the woman when she came over to take the frame away. I hadn’t felt the urge to steal something so precious since my early childhood- it only it was smaller.
I took a seat on one of the extra mattresses on the ground, making a point to tuck my hair over one shoulder. It felt good on my bony hips and spine to be sitting on something other than cold rock, and to be gazing upon something so beautiful and foreign.
Humming filled my ears and, moments later, a bright light shined in my eyes as if we were outside again. Electricity? This old man was living a life of luxury, that was for sure. Even the woman didn’t have this. The old man joined the woman in her staring at me the moment his old body had fully come down the ladder, fetched some supplies from the boxes, and had asked the woman a few questions as if I wasn’t even there.
Both the woman and the old man seemed dissatisfied as they stared at me. The woman seemed irritated, but the old man... there was something else, something softer behind those eyes. His mustache twitched as he spoke up, still in low, soothing tones, to the woman.
"Well, should've brought her here first, that's for sure,” he said, peering down at me worriedly.
I knew what he thought was wrong, but I didn’t take my eyes off the blue moth. No use looking away, I’d like to remember this pretty thing before I was ultimately shot by the woman’s rifle and made into dinner.
"Not exactly ideal. She was clinging to a bloater,” the woman said, and my brow wrinkled bitterly at the thought of Maude.
"You could be a little more sensitive. She's sitting right here, you know.”
"Yeah, well, Dune's got a knot on'er head from getting whacked with a bowl this morning. So, she ain't feelin' too sensitive."
The old man stared at me for a little while longer before he dropped slowly into a kneel. I heard his knees pop as he came down, and that was enough to get me to glance up at him. He kept his distance, which I deeply appreciated, but his gaze lingered on the blue moth in my hands.
“Do you know where you are and why you’re here?” he asked softly, his tone sending a disgusted chill up my spine. Did he think that I was an invalid just like the woman did? I would not be babied by this stranger, too!
"...'m not a pup," I growled dismissively, still clinging to the blue moth. My fingers curled protectively around the frame as my anger rose. "I know where I'm at. Don't wanna be here, neither. Nut Job's got a god complex and likes playin' at bein' merciful when she ain't, that's all. And War Fodder wishes I were dead."
The moment the words spilled from my lips, my teeth clicked shut forcefully. Perhaps I shouldn’t have yelled at the old man. He, at least, probably did genuinely want to help. He must have been paid to take care of me, manipulated in some way. He was just trying to survive, too.
"...d'you want m'dead too, old man?” I asked, harsh as ever, but genuine. “Want t'gnaw on m'like the Nut Job and the Boy? You could do some damage with those nubbies." I pulled back my upper lip and displayed my own sharp canines to him. He didn’t seem phased. Tough old thing just laced his age-spotted fingers over his knees as he took a full seat on the floor.
"Actually, I don't ask that question to determine if someone is a child or not. I ask, because some of my patients come in so badly banged up that they really, truly don't know where they are or what's happening...” he drawled, seemingly unable to take his eyes off of my greedy fingers clinging to the blue moth’s case. “Do you know your name? You don't have to give it; important thing is if you know what it is. Gives me an idea of just how HERE you are upstairs."
My breath caught at his question. The old man was so gentle when he spoke... yet furiously hardened regardless. The last man I trusted left me broken, and healing took too long for my liking. I was busy with other things. I couldn’t be hurt again. I just managed to nod bitterly, and as my hand raised to my scalp for a good scratching, questions of my own came bursting forward.
"How do I know you’re here upstairs?" I asked, gesturing around the earthen room with a sweep of my eyes. "Y'live in a hole in the dirt. Mother knows what y'do all day t'keep busy, wouldn't doubt if y'went mad with idleness... so why help me? What d'you want? Entertainment? Or supplies? I don't got shit t'trade."
The old man’s brows rose high enough for his entire forehead to become like a roll of wrinkled, thin fabric. Without wasting a breath, he pivoted backwards on his rump to point an old, scarred finger over his shoulder at the woman.
"I wish I was that nuts. I'm stuck with excruciating sanity. Least she's usually in a good mood..." His lips twitched toward a frown for an instant, making his facial hair jump around in a miniscule trick as he rethought his statement. "...usually. Anyway, you're prepaid. Dune traded guzz and two gallons of water t'get you fixed up the last time she was here to pick up salve for you."
I glanced up at the woman who had paid to save my life; she was folded against the wall closeby to the War Boy, who was absently picking his teeth. By all means, the woman had no reason to be housing me, let alone paying for my care. Even Maude never went to this extent for me. Rather, she never could.
The old man reached toward one of the adjacent tables in my peripheral as I watched the woman repeatedly attempt to get the beast’s dirty fingers out of his mouth, pulling a long, snaky device down from the tabletop. It was slender and metallic, and somewhat resembled a thin hand holding up a number two. Two buds tipped off the shorter end of the tool, and at the longer end was a round, flat surface. He held his hands out for me to peer at it but didn’t scoot any closer.
"This is a stethoscope," he said, holding up the larger, rounded end. "You can hear hearts working and people breathing with it. Do you want to try it? You could probably hear my old bones grinding with it."
Like the blue moth case in my lap, my fingers itched eagerly to hold the tool. I could vaguely remember Maude sketching out a similar shape in the sand to me when I was a wee thing, in her failed attempts to described how she learned about pup-catching in the Before-Time. When his old hands held out the tool to me, I energetically scooted forward to analyze it, nearly put the nubs in my ears to listen... but I stopped short with a sigh and laid it in my lap instead.
“I, uh... I got mites," she muttered, rubbing my face with exhaustion, willing the stars to return to my eyes. "I really shouldn't." Talking about the mites just made the itch come quickly, like talking about a storm before seeing the angry cloud; it just made me scratch at my scalp like a maniac.
My eyes were screwed shut as I massacred my scalp with my blunt, growing nails, but by the time I had opened my eyes again, my fingers up to my first knuckles had been bloodied red. My exhaustion willed me to do no more than thoughtlessly wipe my hands on my skirts.
"It can be cleaned,” the old man reassured, glancing between me and a pad of paper in his hands, where he was scribbling something down furiously. Nothing like seeing someone who knew Before-Time writing go at it, they always seemed so frantic. “Go ahead. And the headlice is an easy fix.” He tapped his writing tool down and glanced up at me again, eye-to-eye. “Can I see the scabs on your head? They could be infected."
Whether I realized it or not at the time, my heart began hammering behind my ribs as the old man’s gnarled hands reached to touch me. Instinctively, I swatted his hand out of the air and backed up urgently. I remembered this feeling, from long ago, when I was still too young to know caring from selfishness. Perhaps that was why I was still uncertain regarding the old man: he reminded me of someone much more frightening in his similarities to this organic mechanic.
"Please, no," I pleaded, voice weak as pressed the blue moth case to my chest, to put something between myself and him. When the old man tried again to touch my bare skin, I scrambled to my feet, attempting to back towards the ladder leading to the scalding sun above. The Before-Time tool clattered as it hit the tiled ground. The woman rose up from her slumped position back against the wall and took a few steps forward, as if to trap me like sand beneath her cracked nails. The War Boy watched the both of us with that same twinkling gaze that the old man had, surely waiting for blood to fall. I felt tears welling behind my eyes, but they never got the chance to fall.
The old man reached beneath the collar of his worn shirt and retrieved a pair of glasses, though one of the lenses were missing- still, they were rarities, and he still made use of them despite their broken state. He took a good look at me, shivering against the wall, and gently reached a spare hand out to me, palm down, fingers limp. Soothing. Like a pet.
"I just want to look, kiddo. Not gonna touch,” he said, straining his hand out a little more to urge me back over. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that at all. I just needed to remember where the ladder was, that was all. If he touched me, I could go. I could always just leave.
My teeth found the knuckles of my fingers to gnaw on as I approached, still with the blue moth case tucked under my arm. My voice hummed in a whimper as I drew nearer and sat, and my eyes blurred again when I felt the old man’s fingers begin rooting through my hair. It was sore, and between his scribbling at the paper and sound of the woman whispering to the voice in her head, I grew irritated and uncomfortable very quickly. It wasn’t long before I was sobbing softly and fitfully shoving at his arms again to get him to stop touching me.
"...I want t'go home," I mewled against my knuckles, shoulders, and chest jerking harshly as I softly rocked on my heels in the dirt. I couldn’t take it anymore; every little feeling and sound and smell was just too much. "I want m'mum. I don't wanna be here no more."
The old man’s mouth shriveled and thinned under his mustache as he lost himself momentarily in thought, turning the gaze that discomforted me so much away from me and scratching his chin. The woman, on the other hand, only audibly snorted at my pleas and spoke once again to ‘Mumsy’, up in her poisoned grey bits.
"...where is home?" The old man’s voice had gotten old, all of sudden, and nearly sounded like Maude’s for a moment. It got my attention and stilled my tears, at the very least.
I huffed and shrugged as I pawed at my itching eyes.
“I dunno. Citadel,” I said, unable to help but glance at the ugly, ugly War Boy. Talking about home seemed to have lured his attention over, too.
“But not in it,” I clarified with a snarl, narrowing my eyes at the disgusting beast. I made a point to maintain blurred eye contact. “Bottom of it. They call us Wretches... Citadel folk do, I mean. We call each-other Mother's Folk."
The old man nodded, and he glanced back at the beast, then to the woman, who was rubbing at the light bruise on her forehead in irritation, the one I had placed there earlier that morning. When he looked back at me, I was filled with age and sorrow.
"I came from the other side of the mountains too. Not the Citadel. Further... Doesn't matter. Canyon was controlled by Riders. Now, someone else, even less apt to let anyone pass. I'm sorry, there's no getting around these mountains, not on foot. And what other ways, too dangerous. And you're too sick to make that trip on your own..."
The old man must have seen my disappointment, because he was slowly unfurling his legs, to get up and give me space. He looked back at me as he rocked back onto his feet and, with the help of the woman and an exhausted grunt, finally stood again, his papers tucked in his elbow.
"You should think about your mother, what she'd want you to do,” he said, and as he shuffled over to some bins and began sorting through the contents, the woman ogled at him in obvious confusion. She had heard those words before, I was sure.
I picked up the tool that was now resting at my feet and, as the old man spoke to the woman and shoved materials into her waiting hands, plugged the tinier ends into my ears to drown out the growing noise around me. When I pressed the surprisingly frigid, metal circle to the thumping sensation in my chest, I was shocked to hear something familiar, too. My own heart beat sluggishly in my chest, mirroring the sound of the old man’s aching footsteps.
Something must be done. Change has to come. It's what Maude would have wanted.
I got to my feet after the old man and, rubbing my watery nose, intervened quietly in the conversation he was having with the woman and the beast. Perhaps there was a way out after all.
"I know bodies, too," I began, handing back the listening tool I had borrowed. "I help ladies with their pups. Mothers."
The beast snorted mockingly at me, but I shut him down quickly by stomping my boot just by his fleshy foot to give him a spook.
"'S true!" I snapped. "I do the Mother's work! Stop mockin' me, War Fodder!"
The woman’s eyes glittered, and an audible sound of surprise and satisfaction escaped her at the news. "Scav instinct, Slit. A GOOD scav knows what's worth salvage!” she crowed.
"Eat a tire, maniac," he grumbled, and I could see his temptation to spit at me.
On the other hand, the old man seemed positively intrigued. "Oh?” he hummed, glancing back at me. “Hmm... Get yourself in Good shape, an' I might have work for you. Got a girl from one o' the camps around here about ready to pop in the next month or two. Let's see if you can put your money where your mouth is..."
My heart blossomed in my chest. Being put to work had never felt so good! But it sank in the sands of my sorrow just as quickly when the old man returned to his conversation with the woman... the lot of it regarding my health.
“She needs fats and protein... Hate to say it, with maggots off the table you don't have a whole lot of options. Damn, I'd say milk is a good alternative, if you could get any around this shit-hole. Best bet is lizards, and a LOT of um. One of ya needs to get better at trappin'. I've got the salves ready for her, captain dick-head's too." As he drawled on, the old man filled an empty box with unopened tin cans, ones that made my stomach grumble- rations, surely, Before-Time army rations. I had never had a full package to myself before.
The old man then turned his attention to a tiny bottle filled with milk-coloured liquid, which he held up to the woman’s eyes.
"This cream,” he said, shaking up the oily contents. "You shake it up good, brush it on her scalp. Won't do much for the wound but it should take the itch out of it... God rest Matty's soul, wouldn't know my ass from YOUR ass about this shit if it weren't for him."
"The farmer you're always jawing about?" the woman asked, rubbing her forehead with exhaustion as she plucked the bottle from the old man’s hands. That welt on her head couldn’t have been helping her memory.
"Pharmacist, Kiddo. He was a pharmacist...” the old man wistfully sighed, side-eyeing me as he ranted. “Worst malnutrition I've ever seen. She's probably stunted, coulda been five, six inches taller if she got enough to eat growing up. Damn shame, irresponsible parents bringing in babies when they can't even feed themselves."
I must have visibly bristled, because the old man faced me to lift his brow at me.
"Don't talk shit about Mag-Dala! She built a life for herself and Pa! And she had sense enough t'bring m'into the world after she got rusty and infectious!" I chided loudly, gesturing into his ancient face with my shattered nail.
"The worst, most cruel things I've ever seen were done with 'good' intentions,” the old man lamented, and mine and the woman’s faces both fell with a mixture of tiredness and sourness. It left me to take a seat on the ground to keep my shaky knees at bay and the woman to cross her strong arms.
The old man made his way across the room one last time to fetch something else from a shelf- a folded-up plastic tarp (which made my stomach roll and bitter) and a wide-toothed comb. He shoved both at the woman and cocked his receding head of hair at me.
"Comb the nits out of her hair. We'll have to oil up her head to choke out the rest,” he said, and I surely would have snapped at him if my eyes hadn’t once again fallen to the blue moth.
I had put the case in my lap again without even realizing it once I had sat down. Why was I so interested in this damn thing? I peered at it hard for a few moments, until I noticed two brown smudges on the glass. I tried hard to wipe them away, but they went nowhere. It wasn’t until I realized that I was trying to stubbornly rub away my own reflection that I took a step back. I could see my eyes because of the blue of the big moth’s wings giving enough colour to the glass for me be able to see myself in. Suddenly, the moth wasn’t so pretty anymore, and neither was I.
"Know why those bugs don't lose their color?" The old man appeared in the reflection of the glass, too, and smiled crookedly at me. "Because their wings have tiny scales full of pigment that sticks... Ya can keep that. Pretty as it is, I have no use for it, neither does anyone else."
My lips twitched slightly to mirror his. “...thank you,” I said, and he moved along quickly towards the War Boy, who was already bitching at moaning about something or other. I didn’t care.
No one wants useless things; the woman's form of food-feeding and wound-tending charity was worth too much to be given away like she was. But the moth? The useless creature with pretty wings that got pinned to a board by someone bigger and better than itself? I could happily take that.
I watched Wilson work as my hair got tugged at by a comb and a hand.
I forgot about the ladder.