The Itch is now a part of Apocalyptic Fears VI – Download a copy, HERE
They traveled on legs that had given out hours before to the pain and weariness of a forty-mile stretch. It was a bright, hot, cloudless bitch of a day, and for people stuck in between towns the choice was either walk or die. The sun locked in on them like a peeping Tom at an orgy, and their world was a microwave. A big, brown, endless microwave.
The man’s name was Zeron, and he was a bounty hunter. The woman, well, she was Zenobia, a barely literate wretch that had followed him from the splintered town of Sail. The dusty, spur-of-the-moment sex that they’d engaged in before the Orten’s raid was still on Zeron’s mind as they walked. It was uncomfortable—sand in the wrong places leads to cuts—and Zenobia had a persistent cough, so there was also that.
He pushed forward, the thoughts of their intimacy giving him little respite from the harsh reality that he was now crossing a wasteland that many had not. He felt an itch in his groin, and as he adjusted, tugging at it through his leather-patched cotton britches, he glanced at her, wondering if their 17 minutes of “pleasure” would mean a few days of pissing razor blades before he died.
“Unwise Zeron, very unwise,” he mumbled to himself.
“What you on about?” Zenobia asked, her bushy black eyebrows knitting beneath a once pale brow, burned brown by the cruel sun. Her face was barely visible through a mess of unruly black hair, but if you were to see it, most would agree that she was pretty—even with the dirt and the sunburned skin.
“Why did you follow me?” he barked at her, regretting that it came out as harsh as it did, but not enough to apologize about it. “You follow every man you fuck, or am I just the lucky one?” He tried to force a smile to take the harshness out of his inquiry.
“Took a sweet time asking me ‘bout that, didn’t you?” she whined. “It’s just like a man to stick it in and worry after. You bastard.” She lifted her dark, narrow eyes up to look at him when she said it, but he wouldn’t look at her. She realized then that he had a softness for her.
“I see you scratching over there. That ain’t from me. But I reckon you have me with child, the way you went on about it, no control and all that. Reckless-like, like a bloody virgin sticking it in for the first time.” She watched him to see if he flinched at her insult, but he kept on marching and she kept on talking. “So I’m going where you’re going, lov’ah. You got me pregnant and I ain’t raising no seed in this shit hole alone.”
“What’s to stop me from gutting your ass and leavin’ you for the John crows circling the wasteland?” he asked, his voice taking on a forced harshness that she read immediately as an act.
“Just shut the fuck up and walk, Zeron Ryan,” she said. “I know what you’re doing, and it ain’t gonna work on me.”
“You do know what I do, right?” Zeron asked after a few minutes of silence had passed between the two.
“You take me for stupid? I see the silver on your belt, I know you like to buy what you can’t afford,” she said, laughing. “Not much of a memory, I take it.”
“Memory’s better than most, girl. What you laughing at?”
“You don’t remember sweet talking me when you came into town? Riding that dingy old sand bike like it was some sorta luxury skiff. Flashing me smiles with your silver teeth, and sloshing around water like there’s plenty.” She rolled her eyes and trudged past him to pick up the pace.
“I got you, didn’t I? You dropped them pants fast when I asked you to—”
“Keep thinking that was your doing if it makes you feel any better. But you put a baby up in me, so now you have a partner. Fucking deal with it, man.”
“So, you are actually serious.” Zeron said, as he pulled his long blonde dreadlocks back to trap them beneath his dusty vest. “I hate to break it to you, sweet thang, but the next town is it. I helped you escape them butchers, but after I collect on this job, me and you, we part ways.”
Zenobia smiled, and her chapped lips cracked painfully when she did. She grabbed her water pouch, took a swig and then placed it back on her hip and kept on walking.
“If you felt so sour with me, why’d you let me follow you out onto the road, huh?” she asked, but he merely grunted in response.
“Wasn’t nobody sour till you opened your goddamned mouth,” he spat. She smiled again at his reaction and then decided to let him cool off before he got crazy. The blackbirds circled like leaves caught in a typhoon above them, and the sand beneath their feet began to feel like coals.
“There’s more to you than you giving off, girl.”
“Oh?” she replied.
“Yeah, you play a good role but I saw you back there during the scuffle. You bashed that fucker’s skull in when he reached for you.”
“Ain’t nothing special ‘bout me, Zeron, so don’t go buying me a companion bracelet just yet,” she mumbled. “When you been through enough of that shit like I have, you learn to let that animal inside you come out. You’re a bounty hunter, I’m sure you seen your share. That’s why between you and me we have to make sure this boy grows up tough and ready. You know what they do to boys and—”
“You still on about that? Plus what makes you think it’s a boy?” he snapped.
“A mother knows, Zeron Ryan, a mother knows.”
He gave up on the conversation bit when he realized that she was only intent on pissing him off. His toes felt slimy inside his boots and the sweat—those wet snakes of perspiration, born of heat and exhaustion—only added to his misery. In the distance he could see the outline of the town of Falan, and it gave him hope that they would make it after all.
Zenobia smiled when she saw it and then emptied a bit of the water into her palm. An hour ago she would not have dared to waste it, but there was Falan, and her lips had a texture that was not unlike the arid ground.
“I hear that in America they got buggies that run on nothing but air. They got the resources, but they keep it secret from dirt-eating vermin like you and me,” Zenobia said.
“That’s what you heard, huh? That’s what you heard?” He chuckled. “Who tell you that? One of those flesh-peddling scoundrels you worked for back there, or was it from some happy customer, impressing you bout the big city and the luxuries of the Invention Age?” He stretched his arms above his head and then dropped them to his sides and wiggled his fingers. His shoulders were burning and his arms felt void of circulation. When he looked down at his fingers they were swollen, and the grime around his nails reminded him of how hopeless his situation was.
“All I need to do is turn in this bounty and I can get a goddamned bath,” he mumbled to himself.
Zenobia lashed out at him. “Of course you wouldn’t believe me about America. You probably never been nowhere else but here, you dirt eater. My daddy took me to America when I was just a girl. I rode on the heated balloons, seen bikes that you don’t have to peddle, and folks was clean. You can’t even imagine it because all your life you been in the dirt!”
Zeron spun and swung a hand at her face with all the energy that he could muster, but the tiny woman was fast, and ducked below it to run ahead.
“Missed me, you pathetic piece of shit,” she said without looking back at him. “I hope it was worth it, using up your energy like that. I get that you don’t like me reminding you of your ignorance, but you put a hand on me, I’ll be telling our son you ended up dying back there to them Orten Raiders!”
Zeron was out of breath but he kept on marching. “I wasn’t trying to hit you, you silly wench. Just … was … trying to put my hand on that big mouth of yours. Shit, girl, you ain’t stop talking since we started out.”
“You think me so stupid that I can’t tell a punch when it’s been thrown at me?” she said. “I know what it looks like, trust me. You ain’t strike me as the type but now I know. I let you in my bed again anytime soon and it will be me and this here knife.” She flicked out a long carving knife where he could see it.
“That’s an Orten knife. You pull it off one of them back there?” he asked.
“What you think?” she said, looking back at him through venomous, dark-brown eyes.
“I think that I ain’t taking no more swings at you. That’s what I think,” he said.
~ * ~ * ~
The town of Falan was bustling with activity when the two dusty strangers walked up to the gates and waved at the sentry. The wall was an expansive, tall, sand-covered contraption that was built primarily out of loose rocks and cement. The sun and the sand had transformed it into a part of the desert, and from a distance it made the town look as if it was built out of a massive sand dune.
Zeron stood with his arms up to beckon to the sentry and the one-eyed man spat when he recognized him. He had been chewing on a bit of grass, as evidenced by the disgusting wad of phlegm that struck the area in front of them, but before they could object, he motioned to someone inside to open the gate.
“Zeron Ryan, I didn’t know you took prisoners alive. Seems like that would take some sort of effort instead of hiding out and shooting them while they take a piss and all,” he shouted down at them.
“She ain’t no bounty, Jeremiah. You’re acting like you have a problem with me all of a sudden and I don’t understand it,” Zeron said.
“You mean the spit?” Jeremiah asked.
“YES! I’m hot and tired, brother. If you got a beef then come let me buy you a drink and we can parlay,” the dirty, dread-locked bounty hunter shouted back at him.
“Ain’t no beef, just giving you shit. Come on in, boy. You look like dem goddamn crows damn near ate ya.”
Zeron and Zenobia walked inside and two skinny, tanned young boys pushed the gate and locked it behind them. Inside, the sandy road that they walked on turned into a broad street bordered by a variety of shotgun houses. There were people in turbans, shawls and robes, each selling wares, buying them, or doing a variety of other things to try and make a living.
The dust was everywhere, but it was as if it felt unwelcome within the gates of Falan. There were lots of people sweeping off their porches and on a house off in the distance, Zeron could see a woman applying a fresh coat of paint to her home.
“The fuck is this?” Zenobia said. “Compared to Sail, this place is a desert diamond. Everything is so clean here, and the people look like they bathe regularly and—look over there, that one is fat!”
Zeron followed where her finger pointed and stared at the portly woman rocking away on the porch of her house. He had not seen anyone that big in several years and he wondered what it was that they ate.
“Over there, a bed and bath house,” Zenobia said.
“Not yet, I got to make a delivery,” Zeron said and limped over to a narrow building where two masked men in black stood guard at the door. The men eyed Zenobia with interest, but she didn’t seem to notice as she followed her travel companion past them and into the building. Inside was like another world altogether. The cherry wood floors were waxed and reflective beneath lit lamps. The intoxicating fumes from burning incense only added to the house’s mystery.
Zeron looked down at his feet and the trail of dirt that they had left behind when they came in. He wondered if the owner would be angry, or whether or not he would get a servant boy to sweep it up.
“What you got for me?” a raspy voice inquired as a big black man in red robes and bare feet, walked out from a set of tall black curtains to stand in front of them. He kept his hands behind his back—which added to the intimidation—and his eyes seemed wise. His skin looked to have been carved from ebony clay and when he smiled, he showed teeth as white as sea foam.
“Yeah, Maestro, I have ten Orten ears for you, all cut clean. You all still have the bounty out on them boys, right? The Ortens, the—the butchers that—” Zeron stammered, but the big man gave him a frustrated look that made him pause what he was saying. The Maestro eyed Zenobia, who brushed back her locks and winked. Then he looked at Zeron, who seemed terrified of him. He smiled from ear to ear.
“So you came to collect, eh … for the ears?” he asked.
“Yes, yes, sir,” Zeron said.
“Leave them in the jar over there. One silver daryk per ear, alright. That alright with you?” the Maestro asked.
Zeron glanced at Zenobia and then back at the Maestro before agreeing.
“Excuse me, but do y’all know each other?” Zeron asked, as he watched how comfortable Zenobia seemed to be within the house. She had walked over to the exit door where a large bowl of water sat amidst bottles of oil and towels. She was using the water to wash her face and the Maestro seemed to be admiring her, paying very little attention to Zeron.
“Ten daryks,” the black man said and pressed the coins into Zeron’s palm before walking back through the curtains from which he came. Zeron deposited the disgusting ears into a wide jar, then joined Zenobia to wash his face.
When he touched the water he almost gasped with surprise. It was cold, as if it sat upon ice. It didn’t make any sense for it to be so cold, but then he noticed that the room itself was quite cool. There were large fans in the ceiling spinning from an unknown power source, and the windowless walls seemed to keep the temperature. He placed his entire head into the bowl and stayed there, till a terrible itching in his groin made him come up for air.
“Something wrong?” Zenobia asked, but he quickly shook his head and grabbed a towel to dry his face.
“Let’s go get a room and something to eat,” he said to her, expecting her to be happy that he suggested it.
“You go on ahead, bounty hunter,” she said to him as she sat on a barrel near the water, using a wet towel to wipe her shapely legs. “Maybe I come catch up later. We can talk some more about our son and America if you like.”
He wondered why she was playing nice at him, but put it out of his mind and walked across the street to the bed and bath house. It was a large, two-level building with tables on the bottom floor and an assortment of bedrooms at the top. The shop keeper was a quirky, young blonde dressed like a freedom soldier, but when he got close enough to talk to her, he could see that her jacket and pants didn’t really fit.
“That’s an interesting little getup you got on there,” he said to her, trying his best to be charming as he flashed his silver-capped teeth.
“If I was a betting woman, I would say that you’re here for a bath,” she said, behind a false smile which made the genuine one across Zeron’s face melt into a bit of a frown.
“What you trying to say?” he asked.
“Mister, your stench is foul. Now I know that it ain’t good manners to be so blunt and all, but I need you to take care of it before you turn off the guests. A bath is one silver, and a room is two – per night.”
Zeron looked around at the people who were sitting, drinking, and eating. They all took turns looking at him, but none of them seemed to care who he was. He hadn’t bathed in a week, and with the desert sweat still on him from the trek, he could only imagine what he smelled like to them.
He threw down three silvers and then trapped her hand when she made to grab them. She looked up at him with her blue eyes wide, reflecting a mixture of fear and repulsion.
“How much for a cup of that broth I see everybody drinking?” he asked her.
“F-free, it’s free,” she gasped, and he let go of her hand, leaving it red where he had violated it.
She snatched up the money, placed it in the register and then walked from behind the counter. He saw that she was shapely, even with the black uniform trying to cover up her features. Her looks were exotic to the region and he wanted her. She had narrow hips, unlike Zenobia’s, smooth skin from a life spent indoors, and she smelled of exotic perfumes, the type that sent men like him spinning into walls.
She reminded him of one of the old, tattered posters that were on all the buildings in Sail. “Caesar’s Fighting Valkyries,” they read, and each had a beautiful model printed on it. The masses of the army of Caesar Lorance stood behind the models, as the words promised victory for their country. It was all a bunch of nonsense and smokescreens to inspire patriotism within his people, but Zeron knew better. The country was poor, destitute, and starving. What could a fighting Valkyrie do for them outside of bringing in some fresh water, food and medical supplies?
“Fuck Caesar,” he mumbled under his breath, and for a second, just one second, he hated the sexy shopkeeper.
She led him to a room with a hammock in one corner and a zinc tub filled with water in the other. Without a word, she walked out and pulled the curtain closed, leaving him to do his business. Zeron was tempted to reach for her hips and pull her into him before she could escape, but he let her leave, watching her backside intently.
He looked around the room that had cost him the life of two very dangerous, Orten warriors. There were old, disgusting mats on the wet wooden floor. They were moldy, smelled, and looked like they had been there for years. The metal tub was not much better, and the sides held a caked up substance that may had been soap at one time.
He secured his revolver and knife near the tub, tore off his clothes and made to get into the water. When he glanced down he noticed that the area around his member had taken on a sickly black color. It looked as if he was rotting and it made his heart jump into his throat. Oh gods, please be dirt, please be dirt, he said to himself as he got into the lukewarm water and sat down. He didn’t want to look at it, much less touch it, but his mind was in a panic.
When he couldn’t stand to lie to himself anymore, he held his breath and reached down. It felt strangely numb to the touch and he suddenly felt the urge to piss. Standing up and walking over to a bucket near the curtains, he nervously touched the wall to keep his balance and made to relieve himself. It felt like hot acid poured forth from his bladder, and the pain was so intense that he almost passed out. Screaming like a stuck pig as he pissed, Zeron knew that it was Zenobia who had done it to him. He finished up and then fell to his knees, letting the pain pass from his burning groin.
He quickly dressed, then grabbed his pistol to rush downstairs to find the girl. She knew that she burned me. That was why she stayed behind; she knew that I would want to kill her, he thought to himself as he ran out of the bed and bath house. Knocking over people to reach the house of the Maestro and exact his revenge, he stepped inside without any objection from the masked guards.
“Where are you, bitch?” he screamed out loud as he stood by the doorway holding his crotch. That was when his vision began to fail and he began to see dark splotches everywhere. “Zen-Zenobia, you bitch, why, why?” he tried to ask as the woman walked out from behind a curtain, balancing a large red purse filled with coin.
“When we were walking out in the desert, you asked me if I knew what you did, Zeron Ryan,” she said to him as he fell to the ground, losing his strength and his sight. “You thought that I was ignorant to the work of a bounty hunter, but as you can see, I’ve been at this game a lot longer than you.”
“M-me? A bounty?” he asked, as dark veins ran up from his groin towards his face.
“Yes, my dear. A number on your head from the brother of a man you hunted down and shot last year. East of Sail,” she replied. “The Maestro knew your whereabouts a few months ago and he gave me the poison and the antidote needed to get you where he knew you would be the most vulnerable.”
“Y—your accent, what happened to your—” Zeron couldn’t believe what was happening, but the poison took over quickly and ran up to his brain where it took his life and left him dead upon the polished floor.
“Sorry, Zeron,” Zenobia said, as she tucked the coins away. She waved to the smiling Maestro as she exited his shop. “I would have loved to play house with you in this fucked up world of ours, raise your son and all that, but it was men like you that made me into what I am. I’ll think about you when I’m on a balloon in North America. See you on the other side, partner.”
Original work by Greg Dragon (released: 6/9/2015). Seriously, please don’t copy without crediting me back and linking the site. Play the game right. Thanks so much for reading.