Mandy shuts her eyes and walks slowly towards the conman. She opens her fluttering eyelids and hisses, “my hands are kind of getting heavy. Can we just cut the crap already?”
“A Straggler who is direct. I didn’t see that one coming. Do you come with a name kid?” the grinning conman asks, still chewing on the cigarette.
“I am Mandy, Mandy freeborn,” the words rolled out of the teenage girl’s tongue, as slowly as dripping water from a barren tap.
He sniffs at her dismissively, “All Stragglers are called Freeborn, what else would I possibly call you kid.”
“You’re not gonna shoot me, are you?” she bites her lips, anxiously staring at the pistol on the Conman’s holster.
“Don’t be so crude girl. I ain’t no child killer. You behave yourself and I won't be shooting you in the leg,” the conman laughs, hunching over to pick a set of keys from a crack in the floor boards.
“The name is Daniel Kneecaps, and this here is home, sweet home,” Daniel kneecaps announced, urging the wary teenager to join him.
The war with the Nibblers hadn’t taken the electricity. The rivers generated power and High Citadel controlled the Clan that lived on the river bank where the only power station left standing was located. It was an old thing that hadn’t been used in decades. It took a lot of manpower and erudite men to get it working again. Besides, no one had any protective gear to handle nuclear materials and all the parts in the nuclear stations had been stripped bare. People needed anything metal for weapons, and the wires were stripped and melted to make even more weapons.
“Where did you learn to write?”
“No one writes stuff anymore. Besides why does a Straggler want to bother with all that fine writing anyway?” Daniel Kneecaps quizzed Mandy, forcing her to break her concentration.
She doesn’t say a word. She tucks the notepad underneath her shirt and frowns disapprovingly at Daniel Kneecaps. He knew not to probe further and carried on taking the supplies into the kitchen.
Mandy looks up to see a creepy stag head glaring back at her. She couldn’t bare to be in the presence of such variety of taxidermy. It’s glassy dead eyes totally creeped her out. Throwing a dirty blanket over the stag head, she mutters cheekily, “sorry Rudolf, those horrible eyes have got to go. My God! Are you a sight for sore eyes?”
In the derelict house, cold air seeped through the cracks on the wall, brushing against Mandy’s pale, soft skin. Mandy walked slowly towards the wall where the stag head was mounted. She pasted the side of her face on the brick wall. It felt chilly. The rushing air gushed against her cheek.
“This feels a bit hollow.” she taps the bricks gently with her fists. Turning to walk away, Mandy loses her balance and almost trips. Her hands press against a loose brick. It falls in and dust clouds escape from the sides of the wall, as it slides open.
“Whoops! I didn’t think that would be there.”
“Hey Dan! Did you know about this backroom?” she shouts into empty space, walking towards the kitchen. She doesn’t find her host there. Her eyes quickly find a note on an old grey fridge. Her eyes fixate on it for a bit- “Gone hunting. Help yourself to the beer and fresh biscuits, they’re homemade.”
She shoved a few biscuits in her bag and sniffed at the beer in the glass bottle. It didn’t smell as bad as she thought it would. She poured some of the booze down her throat.
“Not bad, not bad at all,” Mandy smiles, licking the foam from the booze off her lips. She felt a little encouraged to attempt to nibble on the biscuits.
“Please don’t taste awful,” she tucks into the biscuit. It tasted divine.
There was some soft moaning and then she rubbed her aching belly, making soft noises, “mmmh, yes.”
It was a hard life for Stragglers. Mandy hadn’t had any food in four days-Everyone was becoming more guarded and crafty at hiding food away from pilfering Stragglers. Someone almost put an arrow in her chest once. She was lucky, he was a lousy shot.
When her rumbling belly was appeased, Mandy’s curiosity returned. Her eyes fixated on the room behind the false wall. She steadies her breathing, grabs a pan and walks into the dark, dusty room.
“There is nothing in the darkness that will hurt you.” she flicks the switch on the lighter, illuminating the dark room. There are all sorts of guns hanging on the wall.
“This is the mother load.”
“Come to mama! This could do some damage,” she grabs a shiny magnum. It looked as if it had been polished with utmost care. The gleeful look on her face soon turned into abject terror. There were tanks with full bodies, and body parts suspended in some sort of clear fluids lined up in one corner.
“What the devil is all this?” her lips trembled, as she struggled not to throw up. It was a losing battle. She emptied the contents of her belly on the floor in utter disgust at what she had just seen.