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.
I watched the hair get cut from close up. As a matter of fact, I had to hold the skeleton still around both arms and chest cage to keep it from getting an ear snipped off as Dune and the coot worked to cut through the tangles.
The nutter had given up combing through the mass of matted hair with a shrill. The spider she found crawling through the wretch's roots apparently gave her an unexpected fright. The woman had eaten raw maggots off my half rotten stump and she was put off by a spider? Mediocre. The screaming and kicking was headache-inducing, but the lice all over my shirt and lap after the ordeal was beckoning brekkie back up my gullet. I didn't give a damn, I took every scrap off and beat my duds against the sand outside to ensure that I didn't wind up with bugs too.
They greased up her head with rancid cooking fats Wilson kept stored in a jar, choking or maybe poisoning the crawling beasts. The hair was slicked back against her head in a great smelly glob and left like that for hours while we all sat and waited on her little hitchhikers to die off. Dune went back at it with the comb, scraping off as much of the shit brown gunk as she could along with the six-legged corpses. After that, we left.
I was the one who had to drag the bony wretch out and down the hill. Why? Dune was the one who decided to bring home a new pet, I shouldn't have to handle it for her. It because the nutter refused to touch her any more. She said "she's cross with me," as if the tiny demoness didn't already hate my guts and cursed the ground I stepped on. I argued that very point. Dune had put herself in a box on the matter and knew it, but all she did was shrug and remind me that there would be a reward at the end. I didn't feel that I had much choice but to play along, even though the prize was something that belonged to me and should be in my possession anyway.
The half a breeder really did not want to leave the old Organic Mechanic's burrow. She whined, dug her heels in, tried to tear herself out of my grip. Willful for such a fragile thing that should know better than to struggle too hard and risk breaking itself. My right hand looked enormous around her bicep, rather where a bicep should be but all I felt were jumping tendons, there was damn near nothing to this self-starved flesh. I could almost tickle my little finger with my thumb as I held the limb. She was going to yank her arm out of the socket if she kept this up.
She kept looking back at Wilson's hatch door and twisting herself behind me, making me unsteady on this shoddy wooden peg. I was sliding and stumbling with every other step. I didn't care how she whined or how much she reeked, I made the decision that I would not be taking a roll down this hill over her stubbornness.
I wrenched her forward, spun her to face me, and for a split second I felt savage. I momentarily considered simply getting her down the hill by the quickest method possible, all she'd need is a little push and down she'd go. I thought better of it when Dune passed us by, sliding part of the way on her bottom with the box of goods on her lap in lieu of risking a topple with glass jars of Wilson's medicines.
I snarled, showed her the teeth that would chew up her maggots if she finally managed to convince the psycho to turn her into tucker. I wanted her to know I would hate every second of what came next.
Up on my shoulder she went! V8 I've thrown thunder heavier than she was, I swear it. I had to suppress my rust and the softness of a whimper trying to escape. This stretched my burns, freshly screwed with by the dirt doctor. She shrilled and yowled in my good ear, dropped that bug thing in the frame too, but that was too damn bad. I wasn't bending over for that worthless thing. Dune had already made it to the bottom, stowed the box of crap, and was making her way back up to meet us.
"Be sweet, Ducky! She's only this forkin' big!" she said, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart in front of my eyes. I swatted her hand out of my face as she jetted back to the top with a jug in her hand, apparently feeling that Wilson deserved a tip of extra cola.
Just as I began negotiating my way down the hill again, the little woman's feeble protesting turned back to outright fighting. She was wiggling like a worm and wailing out clipped sentences between choked sobs. Didn't care, my job was to get her in that ugly fan sled. Flailing limbs and pounding little fists against bandaged rawness all down my back wasn't fun, I'd like to take her to a belt sander over it, but the hair pulling was another level.
She squawked "my moth," or some nonsense and reached back to tangle her bony fingers against my scalp and try to tear it off. I haven't had hair in something like eight or nine thousand days? It's hard to remember. Thank V8, I'd almost reached the sled and this torture would soon be done with.
Teeth grit till they twinged, and with one hand around that thin twine belt of hers, she was easy to lift off my shoulder but harder to de-tangle from my head. I sat her rump on the edge and shoved her at the center of the chest till she tipped backward with kicking legs into the sled. She probably had a big wad of hair in her fist. I scrubbed at the stinging spot with a thumb to check for blood or a bald spot, there was none, but it still felt completely weird and downright rusty. Nasty wench. Well, she was in the sled, mission accomplished.
Dune appeared then, reaching over the edge of what was once boat hull to hand Rush her bug thing, which she scrambled on her hands and knees to get a hold of. I couldn't fathom why Dune gave a shit that the little piss ant got to keep the worthless thing. The woman quieted as soon as she had it.
"Ducky, you are pushing your luck with our deal," Dune muttered as she began climbing in herself.
"She ripped out hair first," I argued, even if I knew I was losing any debate held today with the nutter in a rotten mood.
"Dune knows yir both nasty," was all she said as if to squash the argument before it could erupt.
She offered me her hand as I got in, I refused it, so she shrugged and turned to take her seat by the rudder. I sat, and I waited. Dune had made a lot of deals today and I wanted to see how much her word was worth. Of course, the girl got her puny little shiv back first. Dune pulled it from where it was held between her belts, pausing a moment, then offering the knife in her open left palm to the girl. Each woman had suspicion in her eyes, Dune's right hand hovered near the handle of her own blade, ready to defend herself if necessary.
The wretch didn't dive for her blade the way she did for the bug. She just took it slow and casual, pulled it from the sheath and turned it against the light of the sun. She moaned and sniffed with displeasure before putting it away and clawing at her hair. Ungrateful. I couldn't give a shit less about the girl's troubles. Get used to being uncomfortable and annoyed because that's just how it is out here with the psycho.
Alright, the little rat girl was armed now. I glared at the maniac as I got myself settled. I had better not be left without anything but a few wrenches and a screwdriver to protect myself if the bitter wretch decided to get stabby. Dune looked at me while I made every futile effort to will her face to burst into flames with my eyes, and I could see the sticky gears behind her own trying to turn. I could tell, she was considering the idea of not giving anything back at all. Why?! I'm not dumb enough to kill the food provider, I certainly wasn't catching shit to eat on my own in this rust shape, and the wretch... Well, it would piss off Dune if I did anything to her.
Dune sighed, finally, which usually signaled when she was giving in. She searched under her seat (a plank of wood suspended above the inner keel of the sled) and out from under her came a bundle wrapped in blood-stained cloth. They were bandages from early on in my stay in the caverns. She unwrapped it, revealing dark, rigid leather, bands of rolled canvas for comfort, wrenches reshaped by the pounding of hammers to give structure, and the familiar glitter of honed and sharpened steel.
Yes. YES. I hadn't expected to get this one back. My fingers were outstretched to catch it before Dune even moved to toss it. The moment I had it in my hands, I was shoving it over my left hand, up my arm, grinning till my face ached. I was like a mongrel cur with a carcass all to himself.
The moment my gauntlet was back in its rightful place, I pulled the fastening strap undone and with a snap of the arm I flipped the blade forward. The flesh remembered this weapon. It was dirty, black-crusted into the etching of the skull on the wide face of the shaft. I tried scrubbing it cleaner against my pant leg. The faint rusty colors that were scoured off onto the fibers of the slacks revealed that it was blood. Old blood. My blood.
I was chuffed as hell to see it again but looking at it closely, I saw how the explosion had damaged it the same as me. Scorching raced up the leather to meet where the scarring of my left arm ended. My pinky and ring fingers were still a funny color and the skin still resembled onion flesh, shiny -but not pleasantly- and thin. This wasn't the first time I'd seen where the things I had on me at that time had retarded or accelerated the flames that had chewed me up. The leather of the gauntlet had protected my left forearm, but the steel of the blade had gotten hot and burned strange lines and patterns on the underside as bands of muscle had pulled and twisted as I struggled against looming death.
I never felt the look on my face change, I only knew it had when I looked up to see the Bag of Nuts watching me with that soft, sane look on her face. I didn't want her pity, so I showed her my teeth in a grin meant to tell her to get her eyes on her own business. She never takes the hint, or she so easily sees through me that she knows the difference between a true threat and my bluff. Dune merely took another breath and stood to pull the start cord and start up the motor.
Her feeling any way about my crap made my guts uneasy. I glanced at the New Pet -I'd decided to call her that in my head- and wondered of Dune's feely bullshit was why she was dragged home too. Dune was a fool, putting forth this much time and energy toward things she found in the desert just because she felt bad. Dying sucks, but dying slow and condemned sucks worse.
Everyone kept their maggot holes shut on the ride back, good, because I was sick of the chatter and squawking. The wretch just leaned over the side a bit, I assume to watch things fly by as we moved along the dusty roads and sand. Dune drummed her fingertips against a knee to a tune in her head and I worried that her awful singing would start but no lyrics left her tongue, much to my relief. No insane jabbering, no insults slung in high pitched shrieks. The rest of the night might be quiet for once. Maybe Dune getting out-stubborned and the wretch getting her hair hacked down had been good things. Maybe it knocked them both down a peg, or several.
It stayed quiet even after we arrived on Dune's territory. The outer perimeter, at least a mile out from the cavern itself, was marked with clear warnings. Crosshairs scrawled on boulders with ash and charcoal from her cooking fires to make it plain to anyone that a sniper lurked somewhere in the area. The cavern itself wasn't obvious, it was safe.
Dune powered down the fan long before we were swallowed by shadows, allowing the residual momentum to carry us inside. She only pulled on the lever to break once we coasted into the chamber so that we wouldn't crash into my car. It still got on my nerves how close she always came to putting a dent in the driver side door.
Dune was out first, I came next, slowed by the leg, and the wretch just about fell out last. She barely managed to catch herself and land on her feet. I moved to head into the interior first, but Dune held me up with her scar hand gripping my sleeve.
"Ey, help a Scav put away the haul, yeah?" She demanded in tired sing-song while I watched the bag of bones vanish into the deeper reaches.
Damn it, there was just something that pissed me off about her being back there and capable of claiming a spot to sit before me, even if I knew for a fact that she wouldn't go anywhere near my usual seat. Took minutes to put everything away when it should only have taken seconds because the nutter was so fucking particular. Nothing appears organized in this dump, but she continued to insist that everything had its own spot.
When it was done she said she was going to: "Fix up supper for her Ducky and Grumpy."
It still made my shoulders hunch in disgust at her pet names. I had better things to do than watch her play with maggots. My blade and bracer needed cleaning and tuned up. The dried blood had probably started to rust it. Could use a sharpening too. It was good that I knew where Dune kept that whetstone.
The wretch wasn't where she was supposed to be, she was sitting in the middle of the damn walkway in the dark when I came through with the lit torch. I'd have kicked her right back into her corner if I'd tripped over her. Lucky for her that she was obvious enough despite how damn tiny she was. She just sat there, clutching her ten days empty guts, gnawing her fingernails, and rocking. Great. Fantastic. I had the "honor" of being trapped with two maniacs.
I saw New Pet's face for the first time without all the filthy hair she liked to hide in. It was scarred, but purposefully from the looks of it. It was symmetrical lines down the center and across the predominant features, the cheekbones of her emaciated face. I chewed the lumps of scar inside my right cheek, knowing that I was scowling at her. I could have related, could've ignored it, instead I felt like regurgitating words that have been said to me and stung bad because I was sick of her shit.
"You do that to your own face or someone else cut you up for your piss-pot mouth?" I asked, watching her eyes dart up toward me with some unreadable blank glaze in them.
Was it shit thing to say? Yeah. Did she deserve it? I didn't care. Who wouldn't want to throw low blows after a week and a half being called sinful, ignorant, and getting shit thrown at them.
I didn't do anything but antagonize it sure, but my justification of that was the fact that she judged me the second she first saw me, without even taking the time to find out I'm a shit-head the polite way. She set the mood, I was just following her example. Fuck the high road.
"Take tha' wrist blade and go fuck yourself, War Boy," she rattled, but it wasn't a jab to stir up yet another screaming match. It was a dismissal from her presence.
I glowered down at the rotten creature, but did not retaliate. Dune would slap me red for my words if she weren't busy with food and she'd do worse if I damaged the New Pet. I wasn't offended enough to bother either, she wasn't the first person to tell me to sit on my own blade and I doubted she'd be the last.
More out of spite than anything else, I stayed firmly where I was. I watched with morbid curiosity while she pissed away energy by carefully positioning the framed wing-bug against the wall near her corner spot as if it were a holy idol, her little shiv laid beside it.
She stared at them both, pulling on and trying to manipulate her grease slick hair, arms trembling with the effort. Didn't take long for her to notice my noncompliance. She shot a glare over her shoulder and threw out her booted foot to try knocking my peg out from under me. She missed, likely too starved and too miserable with the self-inflicted agony of it to launch any effective attack. She was below my contempt at this stage, all I had to do was lazily shuffle back.
I could understand wanting to off yourself. Been there. And I could understand the infliction of pain to forget other pain. Been there too. This, whatever she hoped to achieve out of what I could only figure was stubborn resentment, struck me as sick.
"Maybe if you ate what the nutter put in front of you, you wouldn't feel so rust..." I told her, every bit as harshly as the truth could be told, and kicked a spray of pebbles at her with my wooden peg just to let her know I was as done with her as she has always been with me.
That was when I heard Dune, humming to herself as she moved down the passage toward us. I moved away from New Pet and sat in my spot, best she didn't see me near the bony creature. She stepped into the room with a bowl in one hand to push at me and a can under her arm. Once she sat with the can, dropping down on her backside somewhat dramatically, she dug around in her pocket for the can opener Wilson had given her that morning. It was really just a chunk of metal about the length and width of the last knuckle of a thumb with a fold out blade on it. Dune fumbled with the thing, accidentally slicing a fingertip with the dog tooth shaped blade. Thankfully it was only a finger on the scar hand. She gave up on it quick, sucking on her bleeding middle digit and a moment later muttering that she was getting the machete to crack it open.
I leaned swiftly, almost flopping onto my raw side, to grab her belt and prevent her from getting up as I growled: "Just give the damn thing here."
I could have offered to do it for her at any time, but I wanted to see if she could. She was just as rust with the simple tool as she apparently was with driving a manual. I opened it swiftly, without much thought, and picked open the top after a few tries with a fingernail.
"Oooh, where'd ya learn that Ducky?? They got cans at the Citadel?" Dune said, sounding impressed over trivial shit as usual.
I shrugged and dipped two fingers into the lumpy brown sludge for a taste before Dune could take it and pass it to the thankless pain in the corner. It was beans, which always has an interesting texture, but suspended in a sickly sweet kind of gravy. I liked the beans grown atop the Citadel better. No, we didn't have cans back home, at least not cans with food in them. A long time back, when I was a still a pup losing my first set of teeth and gaining the second set, a greenhorn imperator brokered a raw deal and mistakenly traded guzzoline and mothers milk for what he thought were canned foods. It quickly became apparent that only the first layer of cans in each vast crate were preserves and little soft orange pucks called 'carrots'. The rest were canned novelty 'tea towels' with freakishly colorful images all over them. It was garbage from the old-world, when people clearly thought a canned towel is worth a laugh. They'd probably been deceitfully traded off as unlabeled canned grub a dozen times before they wound up at the Citadel. And whose job was it to open those cans and sort the rubbish? The pups. We misused the can openers, definitely, cutting at each other and any random object we could, but we also opened the cans. The imperators and our elders told us we could lie and trade them off again, but our reputation was more important than gaining back what we wasted in the deal. So, we had several thousand rags the right size to make the repair boys happy, and we watched one disgraced imperator get tossed to the wretched below. I still had the calluses on my thumb and index finger from the puphood experience opening hundreds of damn cans till I had blisters.
The tin cylinder got New Pet's attention. She took her hands out of that nest of hacked down hair where she'd half-formed some sloppy braids and took can to give it a once... and then a twice over. Looked like she'd never even seen grub in a can. The wretch sniffed it, tilted it to watch the contents move inside, prodded inside with a finger, and finally shot me yet another glare. You could see the gears upstairs moving behind her beady, sleep deprived eyeballs. I didn't really want to know what was going on in her skull, so I cut my gaze away.
"Ahh too bad, looks like you're not getting her leftovers tonight, heheheh," the nutball chirruped at me in delight.
I stole a final glance at the skeletal creature, watching her slurp those beans off her fingers with more enthusiasm than I'd ever seen out of her. For once she didn't look like a black-eyed gremlin hell-bent on destroying me. Seeing something that more resembled a human made the fading taste of those beans bitter in my mouth. Harder to hate the spiteful thing outright if it looked human.
I rolled my eyes at Dune when she nudged me with an elbow as if I wasn't already looking at the wench. She was all too pleased, even with a bruise right in the middle of her forehead. The maniac rose from her place and I watched her move toward a deeper area of the chamber. My shoulders hunched and my guts clenched with a vague nausea, I knew what she was doing now, loony creeper.
She sat before an alcove that remains in shadow most of the time. I couldn't see Dune, but being familiar with the old routine I knew her exact position and could even envision the horribly sweet smile that twists around her wicked evil teeth. The flash of her flint sparkling against the hollow eye sockets of Mumsy's face as she lit a small oil lamp was enough to make me regret looking over. It never seemed to get less spooky, listening to her talk to dead things. All I could do was shudder, turn away, and try to tune out her muttering as I ate my dying maggots. Dune hadn't spoken to the mummified mum since she brought home Bony-Butt, so she surely had a lot to say and this would take a while. At least afterward, she'd let me have her shine hand for a while. I just had to wait till she was done gut spilling to ghosts. It went on for a mere minute, until...
"...Hey. HEY... That shouldn't be here. Go bury that."
"Can't bury Mumsy in the desert. Ignore the girly, Mum. She knows no better."
"That's NOT true. That's can't stay here! 'S not right. The Mother'll send'it back! Make it eat sand in its next life! Bury it," the wretch squawked.
My gut pipes went acidic fast at the rising voices and bitter tones. For some reason, it reminded me of the caretakers who raised up the litter of pups I fledged with.
"Not today. Nope. Not doin' it today. Be a good green bean and shut it for now," Dune sighed back wearily.
"FUCK you. Y'don't know a thing. That's why shit's backwards. You CURSED MY MOTHER with another life here! I won't let you curse someone else! Damn fuckin' heretics, keepin' folks like they're JERKY or EATIN' them instead! You're worse than the War Boy."
Those were fighting words. I turned on reflex to see what was going on, the same feeling as turning to see where an explosion from too close had originated from. It was the most self-righteous declaration I've ever heard, as if she was convinced she could unravel the arcane truths from the air, and that only she could decide what and who was holy. I had a strong but fleeting urge to join the arguing and shout that she didn't look like Immortan Joe to me. Where the fuck does she get off making judgment on me?! A devout follower! She didn't even have the right to condemn Dune. I wasn't sure the nut followed any faith at all, but she was durable and good with a rifle, maybe blessed by V8 in some small capacity. The corpse wasn't her business either even if I might like it gone too,
The New Pet was getting up on her spindly little twig legs, approaching Dune to confront her even. A jolt of anxiety that I can't explain gripped me when the nutter rose too. The wretch was dwarfed by her, Dune could make easy work of the little breeder. If I had both legs, I'd be eager to instigate a fully blown brawl to watch the wretch turned into nothing but a red smear on the ground. But I was sitting prone, my peg leg just out of immediate reach, and these two could start tearing at each other at any moment. I had no escape route. Even if I knew Dune's rage wouldn't extend to me after she was through ripping the wretch to shreds, I couldn't eject from myself the terror at the idea of being incapable of running and being stuck in a room with Dune in a rage. I was nauseous again, watching them stalk at each other from my low angle replicated perfectly the settings in which my puphood guardians would do their fighting. They were always even bigger pricks than usual after their screaming battles. The women only snarled for a blink of an eye before Dune had a hold on the New Pet's tunic.
"Everything rots no matter where you put it. Get. Out. Of. My. Face. While. I'm. Talking. To. My. Mom."
Dune was talking in the first person, which was bad. Very bad. As if the wretched woman didn't even know just how much danger she was in, she spat in Dune's face, right across her cheek.
"That THING is no more a mother to y'than those maggots are to me. You. Know. Nothing!"
Dune, still holding Rush by the tunic, jerked her closer and lifted the much shorter woman to her toes.
"Bigot. You are a bigot. Do you know what that means? It means you're a nasty little beasty who is intolerant of other people's opinions, cultures, and situation just because new things scare you like a little baby. You don't want to be treated like a baby? Stop acting like one." Dune said, voice low, calm in the way the world is just before a sandstorm buries you alive.
"That's you're own fault. You keep a nonbelieving War Boy in your midst, and you don't say a word. But when someone has the balls to disagree with your crap, then they're bigots. If y'wanted me quiet and compliant, then y'should've shot me." The girl sneered, body shaking violently with the strain the altercation was surely exerting on her. She was almost smug, as if she felt she'd won.
Dune's eyes, with unnerving sanity in them, narrowed at the girl. Her lips twitched into a scowl against her ruined teeth when I was mentioned for the second time. The cannibal dragged her tongue over the vicious points of those yellow chompers. I could tell, she was fighting hard against the desire to use that sharp mouth. Dune's eyes shifted, settling squarely on me in a way which made me uneasy.
"...I never told you not to believe in what you were taught," she said, softly, then turned her gaze back to the girl with something in them I'd never seen in Dune's eyes before. Cruelty. "...And don't tempt me."
"Back off Wretch. If she's talking in first, she means it." It just slipped out between my teeth. I didn't want to hear this anymore.
Dune shoved the wretch away with enough force to send her stumbling back into her usual spot. I was still feeling my guts do backflips. That thing Dune said, while she was looking at me, it meant something. I think it was some kind of misplaced reassurance but I don't know. It seemed to especially piss her off every time the woman mentioned me. It occurred to me the girl was using me as a point in her arguments, which felt weird.
"Don't engage with the bigot, Slit. They LIVE to make everyone around them that thinks a little differently feel like garbage." Dune huffed as she turned her back on the girl and plopped down by her dead parent again.
The demoness sat on the ground staring at the corpse of Mumsy for a long while before shaking her head and clutching her arms.
"No, It still ain't right," Her entire face crumpled as she finally seemed to get it, her gods, whoever they were, are powerless here among one devoted to V8 and another too sand crazed to worry about gods at all. "...keep your Mumsy, if that pleases ya. Ain't my place t'tell you otherwise. But... But y'can't STAND THERE and TELL ME that your mother is more deservin' of ornaments and honor after her death than MINE!"
She stomped her feet and tried to make a big show of her outrage, but Dune was silent as a windless day, and the girl was fast losing steam. She settled into her bug-infested corner where she'd established her place firmly apart from us... Better than us.
"Your mum gets chatted at and praised. Mine becomes shit. Literal SHIT... No. Not right. Jus' not right."
I watched the two women, eyes darting between them. Of course, she hadn't heeded my warning to back off. I'm not sure why I bothered to warn the girl in the first place. She was annoying and... Well, Dune might have been overly wordy and uncharacteristically ruthless about it but the girl really did seem to hate anything that didn't line up with her own opinion of things. I wasn't interested in watching the nut blow New Pet's brains out from up close either. Had to keep a wary eye on Dune, over there muttering at her mother angrily and spit shining a particularly round smooth piece of sand glass she'd found.
"Don't know nothin? Dune knows somethin' alright..." I heard her hiss, and it gave my stomach a final lurch.
She certainly sounded pretty pissed. Dune usually just smiled through my insults and threw them back like it was a game, which infuriated me, but the wretch REALLY knew how to press her buttons. I never called Dune a heretic, though, and I had this pitiful feeling the nut had been trying to put up a defense on my behalf too. I didn't need any defending. Interesting to see Dune truly get roaring mad, though.
As the dust and my guts settled, I was almost tempted to praise the starved rat girl for her good work in getting the better of the maniac and even managing to get her snapping back in the first person. Now might not be the time to say something and piss off either of them more. I didn't want to lose my spot under the shine hand tonight.
My skin fumed and crackled like roasting lizard meat, my blood beating below my skin and filling my vision in liquid crimson. I wanted to hit something, punch the sharp teeth out of that disgusting woman’s mouth and wear them around my throat when I was through with them, but I had no more strength, not even to scream. Besides, sat by the corpse of her mother and snarling up a storm as she was, I knew it was a fight I would lose. There were surely better things to spill blood over.
I hated that bitch, but if there was one thing I had to give her, it’s that we had a twin practicality about things. Granted, she kept the rotting body of her mother around and worried over it as if it were a squalling pup, but her sour head was usually sitting right on her shoulders. Her anger had turned to something I believe we could all agree was important- food.
"What unfairness. You said put um both in the farm. Wouldn't call sparing the living unfair," she growled. She had stopped addressing me long ago. She was up between her ears again.
She paused to listen to the soundless reply bouncing around in her head, before snarling and hacking up another gob of spit to polish the bobble she was scrubbing in her hand.
"You DROPPED and said you were fine, and a daughter WAITED for you to wake up and you DIDN'T and by then... Didn't have the strength to drag you!"
The woman bellowed her reply and didn’t even take a moment to consider if she was bothering us. She must have truly been lost in her realm of thought. There was another prolonged pause before she snarled to herself and replaced the bauble around her mother’s neck, more roughly than she had originally taken it off. She grumbled and brushed off her pants as she exited the main chamber of the cave, though she made a point to swiftly grab an ammo box as she left.
"Dune don't have to sit around and get shouted at by everyone,” she declared with her back to me, before stomping away and audibly attempting to start her monstrosity of a bike.
Before long, she was gone with the rumble of an engine, leaving nothing but silence in her wake.
The man was the only one who seemed soured by the woman’s absence, and he just shifted and grumbled in his spot like a fed-up toddler. He and the wench had a nightly ritual that they hardly ever forgot- he would lay himself out like a corpse in her lap and demand that she worshipped the contours of his angry face with her scar-free hand. I always expected a kiss, a touch, something to be exchanged back on his part, but it never came. It seemed that the action of doting on him was enough for the woman. Without her around tonight, he was uncomfortable and visibly thrown off, his nightly ritual all but scrap.
"...Guess the rest of my night is cactus. Chrome. Real chrome,” he sniffed, uselessly turning his attention to a pile of spare mechanical parts he had collected by his bedside.
He wouldn’t look at me. Though, this time, his scalding refusal to turn his gaze my way stung.
Perhaps it was because it was the only time I had truly earned his snarling and spitting.
I tried to do the same- ignore him, play it furious and cool as he did- but my dismissiveness could not last long.
The can of soft, brown mush I had previously been devouring had filled my stomach with only half of its contents. I certainly couldn’t stomach much more, both of the mush and my own guilt.
I gingerly reached out to take the can and glanced at the beast. Approaching him would be as foolish as approaching a nasty, writhing snake. I didn’t have much of a choice, not if I wanted to sleep somewhat easily tonight.
With the can gripped tightly in my hand, I scooted closer to the man and bent myself towards him in order to gingerly place the can by his remaining foot. The clinking of metal against stone is the only thing that alerted him to its appearance; he was busy tinkering at something that could replace his peg leg, which he always did, whether he was sour or not.
"...sorry. Didn't mean t'get her mad. Y'can finish that... I ain't hungry.”
I backed off as soon as he drew his eyes away from his work to look up at me, back to my spot on the stone instead of on the bedding, and read his reaction as he looked between me, the can, me, the sludge. His nose crinkled harshly in a soundless snarl, but he wasn’t trying to scare me away, that much I could tell. There was something working behind his good eye. He was considering my offer. He just kept that nasty face of his unpleasant as he did so.
He turned back to face the tiny workbench hovering above his lap, finally snatching up the can as he shifted away. He didn’t use his greasy, dirty hands to spoon the mush into his mouth; instead, he simply tilted the can back against his lip and half-drank, half-chewed its deliciously gross contents.
I watched him work and eat, and this time, he didn’t snap at me for staring. As he dug through the woman’s pile of scraps, piles that had probably taken her years to build, he got warm. Layers came off, piece by piece: first his vest, and eventually his shirt.
I had never seen the scars on his belly before. While I was too far away from him to properly make out the details of his scarring, but it took up the majority of his stomach and seemed to display some sort of car crash. Typical War Boy business, as if that beast could die historic. It didn’t even look like he could drive anymore with his missing leg. Those scars probably made him feel like less than rust. I know mine did, on some days.
The tension the silence of the room brought about got him uncomfortable eventually. He grumbled to himself and stood after a while, hobbling awkwardly away and leaving me alone in the cave chamber, most probably to do something methodical, like fixing his scar. It seemed no one could bare hanging around me much anymore. I couldn’t blame him. Curiously, he left the can of mush I had offered him behind, and without my realizing had placed them off the bedding, back in my direction.
I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t lying when I said so. The man was trying to be helpful, in his own strange way. I was tempted to finish what he offered, but I knew it wasn’t truly my place. Instead of finishing the contents of the can, I managed to get to my feet and place the can at the jerkied feet of the woman’s mother.
Her hollow eyes questioned me like the man’s had done. One kind act would not assure me any shred of appreciation in the eyes of the woman and man I had mentally destroyed.
I needed to be alone. And nothing encouraged me more than the explosive sound of a single gunshot shattering the quiet of the dead night. The sound of the man tinkering furiously with the car quieted, too.
I could feel that both of us had lost our breaths for a moment. The woman would be back soon, probably with something fleshy and hairy to eat. I felt the mush in my belly come up, burning, past my teeth. I needed some air. I needed some reassurance.
Despite how terrifying the sound of bangs in the night were to someone with nothing but a knife to their name, I strode my way past the man under the hood of his car and out into the cold.
The chill of the wind slapped me like the back of a leather belt across the cheek, or perhaps like the caress of a blade. I almost expected to see a grubby blanket of tents carpeting the horizon- I had seen such a view every time I had stepped out of my tent, every night of the childhood. Instead, everything was empty, save the dunes and pebbles and probably the occasional crawly beasty and slithering biter.
I dragged myself across sands, my eyes turned towards the dark blue of the sky. I tried to ignore the sand shifting under my feet; I kept my eyes on the stars until I lost my balance and crumpled to my knees, just below the chrome glare of the moon. If I didn’t turn my eyes down, I didn’t have to remember where I really was.
I glanced over my shoulder no matter how much it hurt to acknowledge my surroundings. I couldn’t see the exit of the cave, but I was still close enough that possible passers-by wouldn’t dare approach and try and put a bullet through me. I wouldn’t be added to anyone else’s maggot farm tonight.
I pressed my forehead into the sand once I was certain I was alone.
The Mother wasn’t one to answer prayers for things. The Mother wasn’t one to answer at all. But she always listened. Her Glory would seep up all the little messages and listen to them all at once; if she was being merciful, she might guide Joe’s hand to allow us more water, or keep away the storms. The blessings never lasted, but we tried. Trying could at least assure us a comfortable place in her lap in the afterlife.
I must have stayed plastered on my knees, shivering in the cold, for a long while, at least until I heard the rumble of an engine returning in my direction. Returning between crumbling pillars of sandstone and shale, proof that my cave-prison was once much more extensive eons ago before the mountains began to crumble and die, the woman rolled back towards the entrance of her damp little home.
My eyes instantly flew to the back of her bike. Though there was no evidence of a human corpse behind her on the bike, only a long scaly tail hung out of a saddle bag and flapped morosely in the wind as she disappeared into the cave.
There would be a feast for the beast tonight.
I tried to stay outside for as long as I could bare it, but the desert cold was deeply unforgiving. It didn’t help that I had lost my thick coat of hair, either. My upper back and neck were exposed in a way that they hadn’t been in a very long time. I could only manage a few more prayers before I had to return inside.
I hated that this shit is what I had to come back to. I was forced to sleep beside strangers; what else could I do? Even my prayers to the Mother were useless now.
It took me several attempts to step back inside. I kept stepping out, stepping in, wondering if the woman was going to find an excuse to wallop me. The only reason I returned at all was because I thought at least that the man might step between myself and the woman if things grew too heated.
The man had moved from the small garage space, and he was no longer awkwardly tinkering with his tools to avoid hanging around with me. The scent of meat was wafting through the air, and before long I spotted the man sitting on the ground before a collection of embers. He was most probably just watching the meat to assure the embers didn’t die, but it looked more as if he was going to snatch it directly from the heat and swallow it on the spot.
A line of spit was spilling from the slice in the man’s left cheek and dribbling down his chin, nearly spilling onto the floor before he rubbed the moisture away with a clumsy swipe of his left wrist. The heavy metal glove he wore there, the gauntlet, was keeping him from moving his arm properly. He must have been missing it for a long while, because even though it fit, it looked as if his skin needed to remember the warps and nooks again.
From up a ladder further back in the room, an angry retching sound interrupted the subtle crackling of embers. The woman was nowhere in sight, but I could tell she was digging around in the maggot farm. Who knows what in the world she was doing?
I didn’t want to take a seat beside the man, not when he looked so concentrated and somewhat pleased again. Part of me wanted to plop down across from him and apologize, and climb up that ladder and drag the woman out of the farm so that I could tell her I didn’t mean it when I called her insolent and idiotic... but the woman wouldn’t be up there, alone, if she wanted to speak, would she? She clearly wanted some alone time. Perhaps I needed some alone time, too.
I stepped back into the room of water and bed rags, leaving the others behind me. Oil and grease were dripping down my neck, ironically mirroring the weeping walls around me.
A foreign thought came to mind.
I had always taken sand baths if I was stinking and crusting. Everyone did. If someone was desperate and rashy they might dare brave the bases of the War Towers to fetch some muddy aqua cola but a wretch family called the Dragonflies always hoarded the dirty stuff. They had a technique- they plied a War Boy with tools and gifts in exchange for information, specifically when Joe would be dropping some cola. They would back their tents up just before the cola fell, and place them right back almost as soon as the cola’s stream had stopped. It assured they always had a supply.
Bartering with the Dragonflies was tricky. Maude would call it foolish. Wasting aqua cola for something like bathing was foolish anyways. Drinking would always take top priority; only the wealthy forgot the true use of cola.
My heart battered harshly as I approached the red cup the woman always left out with cola for me. My hair might stay unsalvageable if it remained oily... and it couldn’t be healthy, sitting on my supposed scalp scabs the way it was, either.
Health reasons, I told myself as I bent forwards and squeezed my eyes shut, blindly fumbling with the container of cola. This is just for health reasons.
The cola sunk to my scalp instantly and cooled my flaming scabs, coaxing a sigh of delight out of me in seconds. I scrubbed and scrubbed at my hair with my free hand until the cup was empty and my back was sore.
When I lifted my head, gross drops of liquid fat fell in my eyes; all I could do to stop it was by ripping a length of fabric from my skirt, tying my hair out of my eyes, and sitting in the puddle of cola I had made.
The man did not return to the interior that night, and neither did the woman. After the scent of lizard had drowned in the dank air, I heard a car door slam once and once alone. The man must have been sleeping in his project that night. As for the woman, she avoided sleep at all costs.
The woman seemingly had a plan that was keeping her up through the night. Between short and long bouts of sleep, I caught her travelling back and forth between the garage and the interior, fetching cups upon cups of cola. It comforted me in my drowsiest of states, at least- I had wasted cola, yes, but not in the quantity that the woman was. The reassurance that I hadn’t been made worse due to the decisions of others rocked me directly to sleep.
It must have been dawn when the woman had returned from her work in the other room of the cave. I couldn’t tell, not exactly, but the furious throbbing in my neck from leaning back against the wall for so long indicated as much.
I was well in the mood to start groaning and wincing for the sake of it, after the ordeal I had gone through with the woman a handful of hours ago, but the fabric package at my feet silenced me before I could even let an innocent curse fall from my lips.
The parcel was lumpy and tied with a disgusting piece of cord, lit up by the single oil lamp that was illuminating the corpse at the other end of the room. Perhaps it was a portion of the cooked lizard that the man had been watching? I grimaced at its foreign shape and gave it a hesitant prodding with the end of my toe; its contents were stiff and set. Not edible.
I glanced towards the mess of sheets. The woman’s form beneath the blankets was equally as lumpy as the package. She was snoring and still.
I hesitantly plucked the package up from its place on the ground and got to my feet, rubbing my sore neck as I stumbled closer to the light.
I winced every time the woman rolled over or stopped snoring. Would this be another gift in the long run that I would have to make up for? The package might have not been for me... but I cleared my head with an angry tremble.
My curiosity and impatience took over. I wanted to rebel.
I went at the package with my teeth and tore at the string, shifting my eyes back at the woman every second or so. My hands were clumsy when dealing with the package, and my teeth ripped and gnashed. I was so busy staring at the bundle of dreadlocks hiding a terrifying face full of sharp teeth that I barely noticed when the package fell in my lap.
I looked down. I sobbed.
My dear mother’s hands... salvaged just for me.
Boiled down to the white of her bones, Maude’s hands were dry and smooth in mine, articulated on wire and connected at the wrists to sit in a ruined pair for the rest of time. Curled around the wrist bones were braided locks of hair; on one, a bracelet of white ringlets, and on the other, a twin wrist band in black. Our hair.
I swallowed hard. Instinct told me that it was wrong to hold onto a dead thing. The only thing that I was allowed to keep from a corpse was hair- anything else and the Mother would reject Maude from her kingdom. Too much of her left in the living world.
And yet... I couldn’t let go of them.
In a spur of the moment reaction, I yanked the fabric aside completely, not thinking that it might catch the oil lamp. I manipulated the fingers, forcing the closed hands open enough to place my cheek within their grasp. Maude was still here. Mumma was still here.
I sat there, cradled by bones. I thought back to what Wilson had said.
What is it that Maude would have wanted?
I grit my teeth. Whether I liked it or not, leaving that woman alone to her thoughts wouldn’t do us any good. It couldn’t wait. I couldn’t wait.
I squeezed the bones tightly in my free hand and crawled over to the woman. She was nearly pretty, in her curled little corner, with only her round face and feet sticking out from the blankets. Soft looking, too.
I gave what I thought was her arm a prod from over the blankets, once, then twice, then over and over. Mother, could that woman sleep. When my fingertip didn’t do anything to rouse her, I jammed Maude’s pointer out straight and jabbed her with that, too, double-time.
That got her moving.
With an aggressive jab of her elbow, I was struck harshly in the ribs and knocked backwards from my crouched position. She barely lifted her head when she struck me, but her voice was clear and boisterous.
"She wasn't snoring, Duck!"
It took her a few moments to realize what she had elbowed, and it took her another few moments to completely look up and find me. She looked blearily suspicious, which I supposed made some form of sense. After noticing the bones in my hands and the rather complicated expression across my face, she turned over completely to lift her arm and form a fist. She seemed to be ready for another fight, a match of fists and nails we had never quite gotten around to earlier. Her patience with being whacked and pulling her own punches against a weaker opponent had abruptly run out that day. I had burned up a lot of fuse with particularly harsh words, and that case of dynamite at the end of the woman’s ability to manage her temper was dangerously near.
She didn't strike me, not yet, but the woman was making a silent show of her preparedness to scuffle with me the same as she might someone of the man’s size.
I yelped and groaned after the woman had whacked me in the ribs, but I didn’t yell at her or posture up when she puffed up like a snake. Instead, I backed away slightly and bowed her head, clinging tightly to the bones.
I didn’t move my eyes away.
"...'m sorry. Didn't mean t'yell... I got so spooked. Where I'm from, folks ain't charitable," I said.
I paused to gesture to the cave with the back of my hand, suddenly at a loss. My throat felt tight and I could suddenly feel every pattern of roughness of Maude’s bones beneath my fingers.
"All this...” I said, voice dropping to something just short of a rasp. “...folks give y'all this when they want somethin' bad. Manipulation. And... And I'm still nervous, b'cause I'm scared you'll yank me by the hair I got left one day an' tell me t'do somethin' I don't wanna."
My voice crackled and broke; I brushed the shame away with a cough.
"And I KNOW tha' ain't right, tha' no one should be hollered at like I hollered at you... but I want m'mother."
I whispered my longing like a secret and pulled the bones to my chest, ignored my desire to break down weeping and instead allowed tears to fall in silence, all trembling limbs and hollowed chest.
I looked for a reaction.
The woman said nothing.
Her expression cycled through defensive, to bleary; to a cringe, then to something closer to an exhausted sadness.
Her raised and balled fist finally lowered.
Once the woman had taken notice of my tears, she shifted herself from propped upon an elbow to seated cross legged, moving with a groan that was far beyond her years.
She huffed a sigh, one completely absent of anger; she was simply trying to decide how she was going to respond to the jumbled complexity of my statement. She gestured a hand through the air as I had previously done, as if she might be able to catch her words out of the very ether of the room... but she dropped her arm eventually, finding nothing.
"A scav makes a killin' out here, if they can shoot-n-loot good and quick, an' that's Dune's only claim on talent, the shootin' and pilferin' she does. Got a nice territory, but too much shit and too much space for one measly scav stinky with gun grease..."
She paused, lips pursed with indecision. She watched me attempt to quell my weeping for another few moments before speaking again.
"...Scav Country, they say you can get the sand madness out here, if ya wander too long, or let the skull flesh wander without ya too much. Better not to be by your onesies. Or even twosies,” she said, voice going soft.
I could tell she was thinking about the man. She clearly had a great fondness for him, treated him just like her own flesh and blood, clearly like more pup than man.
“Sorry 'bout your mum,” she said. “Thought it best she feed ya one last time. Didn't sizzle in the pan, though. Did it? Sorry... Losin' mums ain't easy. You say her name was Mag-dala?"
The woman was talking about my outburst at Wilson’s spot. No, Mag-Dala was not truly mine. I was barely her daughter; how could I be a daughter of a woman I had never met, a woman who’s spoken name was so legendary that men turned their eyes down and women beamed in remembrance?
I looked down at the bones of Maude. The woman had replaced the finger I had yanked off Maude’s rotting corpse when I was first beginning to pull her in the hot sun with a string of dangling beads, three of them in the colour red.
I shrugged as I plucked the beads with my lengthening fingernails.
"...naw. Mag-Dala's m'birth mother. Maude, she... Maude was m'Mumma. Hardly the same at all."
I played with the articulated bones in order to make Maude's index finger jut out, just like she would if she were scolding me for saying something rotten to a stranger or to myself. It made my lips quirk in what I could only assume was a strange smile.
"Y'were right, y'know," I muttered, not looking at the woman but instead at the bony hand, as if speaking to Maude. "I can be real horrid. Uglier than the War Boy inside an' out..."
I glanced up to see the old can of beans I had placed by the woman’s mother’s corpse. It wouldn’t be there at all if the man had in one of his fouler moods.
"...yes,” I said, “much, much uglier than the War Boy."
The woman cringed a bit and fiddled with the ripples of scarring over her right hand, refusing to make eye contact.
"You weren't here six months ago when she found 'im. He was a lot nastier then. Mmph... Expectations. Dune walked into the deal with him expectin' his hate an' ugliness. S'all his type have ever known, she suspects. Expectations ain't fair. Di'nt expect you to be nasty. Different kinda nasty, but still...”
The woman glanced behind her to stare down the tunnel that lead to the garage, the man’s turf.
"...Humph, Slit can scream and shout and puff himself up to look big an' angry and he ain't just hot air either, but she guesses getting socked upside the head don't sting so bad as bein' told everything she does is wrong.”
The woman’s face went sour for a moment, but she relaxed after she caught me staring.
“Don't like squabbles over the lil' differences. Dune knows it ain't right to chuck folk's in the maggot farm too, knows most deserve to be buried, but out here, hunger rules. We ain't got Kings or Immortan Joe's. An' there ain't no gods lookin' after us. Gotta eat."
The woman was admitting wrongdoings... but not all of them, though. What I had spoken to her would not be allowed to slide. I could read so much in the rare green of her eyes.
"Dune'll forgive ya for bein' ugly,” she said. “But you gotta trade her somethin'..."
She began and paused, looking at me again to see how I reacted.
I couldn’t help myself: I stiffened badly, my grip tightening on the bones.
I knew this was fucking coming. She wanted something for the hands. How could I be stupid enough to think that this gift would be free?
I tried to stay calm despite how quickly my mind was exhausting itself in its furious jumping from conclusion to conclusion.
"...I don't got nothin' t'give y'no more," I managed to say, eyes instinctively drawn to the cave exit.
Could she make a run for it if the woman tried to yank at me?
I squeezed my eyes open and shut. I needed to think fast. What could I do to get this girl off of her back? What could I offer?
"I can sleep outside t'night if y'don't want me t'bother you,” I blurted, gesturing harshly towards the garage. “I'll only come inside when it gets toasty. I've managed much worse than a few cold nights."
Yes, Pa would approve. If you were in a crock deal, the best you could do was put some distance between yourself and the person trying to put lead between your eyes.
Make yourself small.
"She don't want nothin' you got.”
I nearly didn’t turn back to face her. It took me a few seconds to let her words sink in. I didn’t even turn back in time before she began speaking again.
“Dune wants you to stop callin' Slit names and mockin' his faith just on account of him bein' a War Boy."
The woman paused, glanced around, and leaned in, dropping her voice to a whisper.
"Dune thinks his V8 is twisted nonsense too. Doesn't mean jabbin at 'im with magnum words can fix that, or him. Been hard work trying to tame him up, get him comfortable enough to listen to new things sometimes. That pig king did him an' all his kind a mighty dirty. Robbed em of bein' human. At least here he ain't just a blunt tool an' neither are you."
In my fear and confusion, I didn’t respond. It left the woman sighing and gathering herself up to stand, holding her loose trousers at the waist band so they wouldn’t fall.
"Think about it. Gonna go get him so he don't lose fingers in the night air."
I twisted my lips and finally allowed the guilt to settle, deep in my belly, twisting and souring the pleasant much I had consumed and making me want to chunder up all I had eaten. I swallowed hard to avoid it.
I had fucked up. And I needed to own up to my fucked-upness.
I tried to leave the woman alone. I had bothered her enough. She was busy. She had things to do...
It didn’t work.
I huffed and lurched my arm outwards to grab her at the wrist, but I ended up awkwardly grabbing her ring and pinky fingers and giving those a tug instead. When the woman put her eyes on me, I used one of Maude's bony fingers to prod myself in my own chest.
"...Rush,” I said, “I'm Rush."
That's all I said before letting go, all while maintaining the eye contact I was so scared of giving in the first place. The woman deserved to know... I had a sinking feeling that I would be here for a while.
I shuffled over so that my bony rump was now seated on the thin scraps of mattress foam that the woman had laid out for her on the first day she brought her home.
It was high time I got some rest.
Mouth somewhat agape, the woman looked at me around the room, then back at the me once I had spoken my name. She even examined her own fingers, disbelief on her face, once they were released from my grip. She flexed them once with lifted brows and looked beyond them at me.
She then managed a single, almost formal kind of nod and jammed herself in the chest with a thumb as she spoke too.
"Dune. I'm Dune."
She seemed to understand the meaning in my actions and words, but the fact that she introduced herself even though she spoke in the third person struck me as a pointed reminder that the woman was still mad as can be.
She nodded again, leaving the room to fetch the man, who trudged in only a few moments later with half lidded eyes to take his spot. He rolled clumsily onto his back and yanked off his peg leg before carelessly tossing it aside and fighting to smooth out a bunched-up blanket. He didn't even seem to notice that I was sitting only a few feet away from him, with damp hair and still reeking of death, just as I had on the first day.
The woman settled between us soon afterwards, handing me my own bunched-up sheet and tugging another over her legs and torso, sticking her feet out as they had been before. The man preferred to be a completely wrapped human lump, head wrapped, and foot pulled in too.
I covered myself with the blanket and turned onto my belly, the bones still clutched tightly in my left hand. It was so comfortable, the foam and scrap mattress below me, and it didn’t take long for the knots in my neck to unwind and for my eyes to fall shut.
Yet, before I did, she snuck my fingers over to gently take hold of Dune's trouser leg. As much I liked to think of myself as independent, and nasty, and not to be trifled with... I also liked to be reminded that someone else was there with me, even if I didn’t particularly like that someone else.
After all, I’d never been alone before.