By Mary Lanctot
Though he’d only ever had the meal once in his life, the most memorable breakfast Rook had ever eaten was eggs done sunny-side up.
He’d been four then, nearly a decade and a half ago, yet he still remembered his mother singing softly in a language he didn’t know. She’d been waltzing around their dirt hut, her sallow, hairless skin glowing in the sun that shone through their hole-in-the-wall door, and at the time Rook had thought she was the most beautiful person he’d ever seen. Granted, she was one of the mere three people he’d ever met.
And she was elated that she’d found an egg for her young son while she’d been out scavenging. It was an occasion to celebrate and to introduce him to her favorite breakfast.
His mother brought him the eggs done sunny-side up on a small sheet of scrap metal that she affectionately called a plate, and handed him their only battered fork.
“Here you are, love,” she’d smiled. “Eggs done sunny-side up.”
Fifteen years later as Rook stood atop a pile of rubble, wondering which direction he needed to go to reach Beggar’s Alley, it was the perfect way to describe the sky.
Eggs done sunny-side up.
“Ah shit!” he cursed, swiping at a blackbug that had landed on his exposed bicep and began searching for a place to burrow. The long sleeves of his tattered shirt had been sacrificed weeks ago as bandages. A run in with a Mute had seen to that. They were still tied tightly around his claves. The way Rook figured it, he could sew them back onto his shirt when they were done being bandages. It’d add to his shabby appearance, sure, but that was better than damn blackbugs laying eggs in him.
Rook adjusted the straps of his old brown rucksack and wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. His sun-bleached hair was getting long again and it wasn’t helping with the heat.
“Damn sunny-side up sky,” he muttered, shaking his head before he carefully began picking his way down off the rubble pile.
The sudden sound had Rook jumping out of his skin before he spun around, knife in hand, and found a girl standing quite far behind him. She was his age, He could see that as she stepped closer, fingers laced in front of her and apparently oblivious of the knife in his hand. The straps of her rucksack were sliding off her shoulders and her clothes hung off of her like curtains.
“What’s sunny-side up?” she asked. “You’re thinking it quite loudly.”
Rook let out a sigh and shoved the knife back in the waistband of his pants. She was just a Mutation. A gentle one. Not a Mute. One of those that’s a little empty in the head and occasionally picks up on a thought or two from a brain that isn’t their own. Though they unsettled Rook a bit, they weren’t much of a problem. And besides that, it wasn’t like they could do much about being Mutations. It mostly happened when their mothers came into contact with radiation while pregnant.
“It’s a way to cook eggs,” he answered, turning away from the girl and her buzzed off black hair.
“Where are you going?” she asked, jogging a few steps until she fell in place beside him. Her thumbs were now hooked through her rucksack straps, and she gave Rook a sideways glance with hazy brown eyes.
“It’s not really your business,” he sighed, picking up his pace. He knew there was no way to outrun a Mutation so his only chance at getting her to leave was to bore her. And he needed to manage to do that without getting lost. Because he had no idea how to get to Beggar’s Alley.
“I’m going to Beggar’s Alley. You can follow me if you want. I’m Noa by the way,” the girl said. Rook stopped in his tracks and looked at her. She was so tall he almost didn’t have to look down to meet her gaze.
He did need someone to help him get there. He wasn’t going to make it at this rate. Until now he hadn’t even been sure he was going in the right direction.
“How much further?” he asked.
“It’s a two day walk from here,” Noa shrugged. “You don’t have to follow me if you don’t want to. I just thought you might need help.”
Rook’s eyes narrowed. He puffed out his chest.
“What’d you want?”
“Nothing,” the girl smiled. “Just some company.”
That didn’t sit well with him. He’d never run into anyone in the wastelands who didn’t want something from him. But getting to Beggar’s Alley was important. Grandpa had made sure he was damn well aware of that.
“Walk in front ‘a me,” Rook muttered gruffly. The girl shrugged again, her eyes glassy and not quite focused on his. She turned and set off, Rook trailing behind under the sunny-side up sky.
Noa had a problem. It’d been following her for a while now.
Four days had passed since she’d left Jericho and after several instances of getting attacked by blackbugs and desert rats she’d realized that she was not cut out for fighting. She was going to need someone to watch her back if she wanted to make it to Beggar’s Alley. At the time her problem had been that no matter how long she wandered there was no way to know if she’d stumble across anyone. Most people stuck close to civilizations, though it rarely saved them from a gruesome death.
Of course, the problem was different once she met Rook.
He’d seemed like the type of person who could handle himself in the wastelands, broad shouldered, thick muscled, and seemingly well fed. Plus he had a knife.
How was it that after all the miles she’d walked, day and night and day, she had to run into the most unfriendly person in the whole of the god forsaken earth?
Noa closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the scorching, dusty air. It carried Rook’s thoughts with it.
I don’t like this one bit.
“Neither do I,” she muttered, doing her best not to trip on the rocks and rubble that littered the nearly non-existent path she was following.
“What’d you say?” Rook snapped.
“It’s not really your business,” she smiled. Her brother’s had always teased her like that whenever she was grumpy. And Rook wasn’t anything but grumpy.
“Very funny,” he grumbled. He backed off from her a few feet and Noa’s smile faded. She couldn’t believe she’d decided to enlist this stupid young man and his bleached-out eyes. Everything about him, from the way he dressed to the way he spoke, said he had never spent more than a week at a time in civilization. Her best guess was that he was a farmer.
“Isn’t there a civilization closer to your farm?” she asked without thinking. Noa could have punched herself. In Jericho there were a lot of people like her. Mutations that put two and two together without anyone saying anything. It was normal to ask abrupt questions. She had a feeling Rook didn’t appreciate that.
“Would ya stop reading my thoughts?” he frowned.
“Sorry. I wasn’t. I just figured by the way you talk and dress…”
“Whatsa matter with the way I talk?” Rook glared. Noa stopped and turned around to face him, scanning the area as she did. Nothing but dirt, dust, rubble, and scrappy plants as far as she could see.
The hazy sun was swan diving towards the horizon, and she thought about her brother, Tommy. He’d take her outside when she was little and carry her to the roof of their home. There he would draw pictures -in his school notebook- of the sun setting with the few colored pencils he had. Noa would watch him, mesmerized by his eye for detail, and Tommy would tell her stories about before Jericho’s government crumbled. Stories where Mom was still alive and Dad’s museum hadn’t been burned to the ground.
“There’s nothing wrong,” Noa assured Rook. “It’s just not the way we speak in Jericho.”
He stared at her silently. She knew what he was going to say. Noa didn’t need to be able to catch his thoughts for that.
“Jericho’s locked down,” he stated. “They guard that place with radguns.”
She knew that. She knew that well. It was why Tommy wouldn’t ever draw another picture of the sunset in his school notebook.
“You must’ve got out before-” Rook started.
Something moved beneath his foot, knocking him off balance.
Rook cursed loudly, arms pinwheeling for balance.
The thing rose from the ground. It had been covered in dust and rubble. Neither of them had noticed it. On gaunt, gray limbs it struggled to its feet. Its spine was horribly compressed and twisted, its ribs were exposed, and its belly was swollen. Strings of matted gray hair sprouted from its liver spotted scalp and its eyes were yellow.
Noa froze. The creature was headed towards her on two knobby kneed legs.
Rook regained his footing and scrambled for the knife in his waistband. It wasn’t much against a Mute, but he’d done this once before.
But the Mute wasn’t coming towards him. It was stalking towards Noa at an unnatural speed, and she wasn’t so much as blinking.
“Noa!” he yelled.
She didn’t move. Her eyes were hazy, locked with the Mute’s, and her hands balled in tight fists on the straps of her rucksack.
“Noa! Move!” Rook shouted, scrambling towards the Mute as it continued tripping towards Noa.
It grabbed her ankles and wrestled her to the ground. She still wasn’t moving. Rook sprinted towards her as her head cracked on a rock and red started spilling from her scalp.
He grabbed the Mute by the back of its neck, yanking it away from her. It let out a strangled shriek as Rook tossed it to the ground. The Mute flipped onto its stomach and scrambled to get up. He kicked it before it could.
The Mute grabbed his calf in its bony hands. Rook could feel his skin turning black and blue as its fingers clenched harder and harder. He didn’t want to imagine the bruises that would be left after this. Letting out a frustrated slew of curses and plunged the knife into the Mute’s neck. Blood oozed out in a slow trickle. The Mute didn’t budge.
Rook stabbed it again and again, screaming in pain as the creature sunk it’s few jagged teeth into his flesh.
His gaze flashed to Noa. She was sitting on the ground, her scalp bleeding, eyes tracking the Mute. She wasn’t doing a damn thing.
He stabbed it again.
His knife sank into the creature’s skull and neck and back until Rook’s arm screamed in protest and at long last the Mute’s jaw and hand loosened and its yellow eyes met his one last time before they rolled back in its head.
Rook stared down at his bleeding, bruised, and swollen leg. He looked from it to Noa who was still staring at the dead Mute.
“What… the hell was that?” he bellowed. “Ya just sat there!”
“I saved you and you didn’t do a damn thing to help me!”
“I’m sorry,” Noa whispered.
Rook stared at her, eyes burning.
Noa couldn’t find a trace of forgiveness on his face. Fear gripped her heart. She needed to think fast. If he decided to abandon her here, she wouldn’t make it to Beggar’s Alley alive.
Rook squashed down the softness he was feeling. Noa’s eyes were so wide and frightened he was almost ready to forgive her. But this was the wasteland. Rook knew there was little reward for softness.
“Get us to Beggar’s Alley. As soon as we’re there yer gonna leave me alone,” he snapped, reaching down to haul her to her feet.
Noa lifted a hand to the cut on the side of her head for the first time. Her fingers came away sticky with blood. It hurt. Rook untangled one of the makeshift bandages that had been wrapped around his leg when they first met, tore it in half, and handed her one piece before he rewrapped his fresh wound.
She stared at it, distaste welling in her stomach. Bandages were supposed to be sterile. This one was a map of dirt, grime, and dried blood.
“Gonna use it or not?” Rook demanded. Noa ducked her head. Her eyes met the dead Mute’s. She could feel her face heating up as her eyes welled with tears.
“It’s just a Mute,” Rook commented, following her gaze. Noa wondered what it would have been if its mother hadn’t been exposed to quite so much radiation. She wondered how much more radiation it would have taken for her to meet the same fate.
“Hey. If yer not gonna use the bandage, give it back. This shirt used to have sleeves and that was one of ‘em,” Rook said, holding out his hand.
It took courage for Noa to press the filthy piece of fabric against her wound.
“Thank you,” she forced herself to say, meeting his stony gaze. For some reason Rook looked away. His mouth tightened and he looked angrier than he had been before.
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s get moving.”
Rook had never been to Beggar’s Alley before and after a first glance, he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to come back. It was a shanty town that clung to the edges of what the town’s folk called ‘Lake Leftover’. It wasn’t much more than a dirty pond with two large bridges built over it. Signs at the entrance to the place boasted that before the nuclear war that’d killed off almost everyone and everything on earth, there’d been an actual lake there. One so big they’d called it Lake Superior. Rook was pretty sure that was a crock of bull.
“No. It’s true,” Noa piped up from behind him. They’d hardly said a word to each other for the last day and a half it took to reach Beggar’s Alley and Rook wasn’t complaining. He was still fuming about the Mute attack.
“Dammit to hell! Would ya stop that?” he cursed, turning to face her. “And why are you still following me? We’re in Beggar’s Alley now. Scram!”
“I just wanted to say goodbye. And thank you again,” Noa shrugged. Her face was as blank and emotionless as it had been since Rook met her. “Oh. And here’s your shirtsleeve.”
“Don’t want it. ’S got your blood on it,” he frowned, waving her away. Noa refrained from commenting on the irony of his refusal. “Now goodbye.”
Rook turned away and set off into the bustling town, the back of his neck burning under Noa’s watchful gaze and the sunny-side up sky.
Category: Featured, Fiction, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student