Bob Raymonda is the Founding Editor of Breadcrumbs Magazine. In 2018 he co-founded the podcast production company Rogue Dialogue, which released its first show, the science-fiction audio drama Windfall, in February of 2019. His work has been featured in Luna Luna Magazine, OCCULUM, Gravel, Peach Magazine, and Yes Poetry, among others. Learn more at www.bobraymonda.co.
Rooney has a new job in a roadside casino. They’ve been popping up all over the place since the blast, which is funny because the country (what’s left of it anyway) stopped using cash before she was even born. For many years, they used the barter system, but even now with the new government trying to establish some generalized rule over the remaining contiguous United States, they’ve switched to bonds. Even so, scavengers and scallywags alike show up, day in and day out, with a pocket full of Jefferson's stolen from abandoned bank vaults and dead collectors’ homes. Ready to lose all they have to the house, as long as it keeps them away from their other responsibilities.
Rooney wears one of those cute little neon visors on her head, which is nice because it obscures how much of her hair is falling out. Her friendship with the radioactive muties that roam the earth has sustained, her whole life. And so, she uses a little comb every morning to try and hide that bit of her mortality, dons the green cap, and walks the eight miles from her shed to the Casino day in and day out.
She’s a dealer at the blackjack table right as you walk in from the highway. This isn’t like the casinos from the old world. It’s all musty and beat up, a few lamps blinking intermittently with bulbs that desperately need to be changed, and barely a color in sight. There’s still plenty of booze though, and a thick cloud of smoke hangs over the air even with all of the windows propped open.
The bartender, a handsome mutie named Chuck, walks over to her and sets a little plate down next to her deck of cards. Delicately wrapped in a napkin and tied up with twine are three perfect sugar cookies. Chuck kisses her on the cheek and she squeezes his hand. Without saying anything, he leaves to fill up Harry’s drink at the slot machines.
What was that about? Asks Pullman, one of the regulars. Sad sack of shit doesn’t have a pot to piss in and still comes here every day to throw it all away on Rooney’s fixed hand.
She peers over the top of her glasses, which hover around the edge of her nose. Scuse me?
The monster over there gave you those cookies. What’s that about?
Rooney scowls. Scientists have disproven previous studies saying that muties were the cause of poor post-war air quality. Their wholesale slaughter has long been outlawed by the new government, but ignorant folks like Pullman still roam free and ready to sling their trash.
You gonna hit or you gonna stay, Pully? Rooney asks, glancing at her own hand. She’s got blackjack (she’s always got blackjack), and he has a jack and a three. There’s no chance in hell he’s getting out of here without diving deeper into debt.
She takes a bite out of one of the cookies. It’s still warm, and just the right amount of crunchy and chewy. She blows Chuck a kiss and he catches it out of the air in one skinless hand, puts it into the breast pocket of his flannel shirt. Gives her a wink.
Oh, I see how it is. Didn’t know we had any monster fuckers here, Pullman continues, cracking his knuckles. He reaches across the table to grab one of her other treats.
Chuck laughs from across the room, I wouldn’t do that if I were you.
Pullman puffs his flabby chest out like he’s got something to prove, Oh yeah? Who says?
Frieda, the only other person at Rooney’s table, groans. Will you just take your turn already? I’m having a lucky night, I can tell.
Rooney pats Frida on the crook of her elbow as if to say, don’t you worry about this jabroni honey, but she doesn’t say anything. She just grabs Pullman’s greasy fist and, without breaking a sweat, crushes five of the smallest bones in his hand. He’s wailing and wailing, screaming like a baby really, and she just laughs. Takes another bite of her cookie and says, What’s that, Pullman? You’ll stay? Thought so.
Frieda looks shocked from the exchange but determined. She gives Frieda another card and lets her think for a minute that she’s actually won, before flipping over her own hand and showing off her patented ace/jack surprise.
Pullman’s still on the ground grumbling like an infant, or and idiot (whichever you prefer), and grumbles: You bitch.
Chuck comes back from around the bar and hands the prick a pile of ice chips wrapped in a dirty dishrag and says: She may look old, but she sure as heck bites.
Rooney laughs and laughs. She kisses Chuck on his mouth, even though half of his lips are gone, and runs her fingers through his patchy hair.
Asks Pullman: Who’s the monster now?
There is a nursery at the end of the world. Only, it really isn’t the end of the world. Everybody acts like it’s the end of the world, and there was a lot of killing there for a few decades, but things are starting to even out. The weather’s still a mess and nobody really trusts each other anymore, not even the elected officials in the new government, but if some jamoke can open up a nursery in Topeka, Kansas and stay in business after a nuclear war, that must mean we’re all doing something right.
The nursery is one of Rooney’s favorite places to visit. The flora is all brand new. Radioactive variants of what they might have looked like in the old world, Eustace’s world, that is. Her mother isn’t one for flowers, so Rooney isn’t ever quite sure what she’s looking at on account of the fact that she never got that kind of education, but she still thinks they’re pretty. Gigantic reds and blues and greens and pinks and yellows cover the place from floor to ceiling, stretching themselves this way and that to maximize their exposure to the sun in the hot January weather.
The girl who works here is pleasant. She keeps small flowers tucked behind her ears and is constantly repotting plants. Her father owns the place, a massive jelly doughnut of a man with one arm and a permanent scowl. Whenever he’s around she puts on a stony disposition to match his composure and lets it drop the second he’s out of earshot again. She must be in her early thirties. Rooney doesn’t just come here for the flowers.
What kind of plant would you give someone for their birthday? Rooney asks, running her fingers along the slick bark of a hybrid rose tree.
The girl stops what she’s doing and looks at Rooney with a warm smile. She tucks a strand of her brown hair behind her ear and rubs her chin, thinking. Tulips.
She comes out from behind her counter, nodding and walking to the other side of the hot greenhouse. Rooney follows, feeling the mist of the overhead hoses spritz the plants around her and momentarily cools off. They come upon a flower that’s at least four feet high, with a stem as thick as her forearm. Its petals are a deep purple with splotches of blue and orange. It looks almost like it’s been painted, like its a sculpture and shouldn’t exist.
The girl runs her fingers along one of its bushy leaves. These things are a whole heck of a lot different then they used to be. But pretty, right?
Rooney nods, putting her hand on the same leaf the girl is touching, and for a minute, on the girl’s hand. They lock eyes but hear someone moving around in the back, and the shopgirl recoils again.
So whose birthday is it?
Rooney blushes, not saying anything.
Oh honey, is this for you? The girl asks, running the back of her hand on Rooney’s cheek. Rooney’s brain is on fire. If they were alone, she would kiss her now, but decides to settle for grabbing onto the girl’s wrist and squeezing it.
The oafish owner barrels into the room shouting: Tulip! Tulip, where the hell’d you run off to?
The girl, Tulip, jerks her hand away from Rooney’s face. She looks away and calls after him, Over here, pa.
Her father’s wearing a rubber apron that’s stained in streaks of red. Rooney gets an uneasy feeling in her stomach, but she pipes up anyway: She was just helping me pick out a present for my friend’s birthday.
He doesn’t even look in Rooney’s direction. How many goddamn times do I have to tell you not to leave the counter unattended?
Tulip quickly walks back to the register, nodding profusely. Of course, dad. I was only away for a second, but…
Did I ask you how long you were away? What if those damn muties came back? Who’d have warded them off? He makes a gagging sound, those freaks make me sick.
Rooney feels the hair on the back of her neck stand up. There’s no reason to be so insensitive, sir. Your daughter is kind, and if you really took a second to think about it, all these plants you have here are exactly like those muties outside.
The pig actually turns to look at her this time. He doesn’t emote for a second, but instead extends his arm and points one gnarled finger at the door. Get out.
Tulip tries to hide a frown. Says: Aw, dad, you’re being harsh. Don’t you have something you were trying to finish in the back?
His face turns as red as his apron. He takes a deep breath before screaming: I SAID GET OUT.
Rooney stares him down. She gathers herself and walks toward the door, dropping a scrap of paper with her address on it on the countertop as she walks by. Tulip mouths the words I’m sorry to her, but she shakes her head. She’s just fine, and it certainly won’t be the last Tulip sees of her, at least not yet. The bell rings on the door as she opens it to leave. She takes a deep breath of the warm midwestern air and heads off in the direction of the noonday sun.