Chapter Eight: Reminiscence
Freckles stands at the edge of a Detox cot, watching as a volunteer attempts CPR on the girl they all know to be dead. Peter is a ways off, pale and glistening with sweat. To him, this is new. To Freckles, it's just like any other day - except for Manuel. That was a wrench in the machine she wasn't prepared for. He steps up beside her, and she knows just what he will demand. She beats him to it.
"You'll have your credits."
"Oh, I have no doubt about that." He leans in close, taunting her. His breath smells like a combination of manure and copper. Didn't The Hands believe in toothbrushes? "I'm just wonderin’ if I'm gonna get them from you alive, or if I'll get the sweet pleasure of carvin’ them outta you."
"I said you'll have them." She attempts to hold her breath to stay the foul odor eking out his mouth.
"All of them."
Freckles jerks her head towards him, glaring in bafflement. "The girl is dead."
"Does it look like I give a flyin’ fuck? The deal was three heads to the elevator. Not if any of you lived or died while doin’ it."
For a moment, she's tempted to curse him out but thinks better of it as she watches Peter lean against the wall; a volunteer draws a white sheet over the nameless girl's face. Peter's jaw tightens, but he remains stoic, even as his hands tremble at his sides. Her blood still coats them, staining them red, like the rings around his eyes.
"Shower first," Freckles sighs, "credits after. That sit pretty with you?"
Manuel shrugs. "Don't take too long, sunshine. Time's a tickin'."
With a brisk pace, she approaches Peter, nabs him by the arm, and tugs him away from the girl, heading in the direction of the showers. He looks around, lost, nearly unaware someone is pulling him until she stops them abruptly at the doorway. Tenderly, she places Justine in his hands. "Don't lose her." Out of habit, she retrieves two bottles of water and reaches for some jerky. "Follow me."
Freckles tries her best to avoid Manuel's stare as she and Peter enter the showers. Her legs quiver beneath her while leading them to a nearby shower stall, drawing the curtains around them. She collapses onto her hind end, exhausted, starving, and numb. This is ritual: to drink her water and chew her jerky before the tedious task of bathing. Usually, this process is in the company of Meryl, but today, it's with an umber-toned stranger whose eyes glisten with sincerity. He remains standing, coming out of his daze by the soft sounds of erotic moaning echoing off the walls. His cheeks redden, and he clears his throat.
"Sit," Freckles says, motioning to the floor as she ignores the wanton groan of a woman. "Replenish. Manny won't be going anywhere until he gets his credits, so enjoy the-" she's about to say silence, but realizes just how ironic it sounds. "-time away. While you can." She tosses him a bottle of water and downs her own in one go before laying back against the cool tiles. Wiping a sweaty lock of hair out of her eyes, she remembers the jerky, not bothering to lean up as she offers one out to Peter.
Finally, he speaks. "God. No." He sounds as if he'll be sick. "I'm a vegetarian."
Freckles rolls her eyes, thinking one man's trash, before breaking off a chunk between her teeth. She's oddly reminded, yet again, how well his name suits him. What's next? Is he going to start performing yoga poses and profess he knows Latin? "What happened to that girl isn't your fault."
"I know." His head bobs up and down. "I know that. I just…" He slams the bottom of Justine on the ground, agitation flooding his features. Freckles shoots him a dirty look. "For a moment, I thought we actually made a difference."
"That's a nice fantasy," she replies dryly, "making a difference. We're not the Make a Wish foundation. In here, you fight to live, or you lay down and die. And, above all else, always look out for number one."
"This isn't living. This is like mice in a maze, forced to perform. And these…kill credits-"
"The Kill Rank," she corrects.
"Yes, that. Being ranked for killing when you can't even begin to control it? Doesn't anyone wonder how the dead are able to construct something like that? It's...sinister. And don't even get me started on the rewards system."
Has her resolve weakened over the years? Wasn't she pondering these same thoughts earlier in the Bazaar? She decides maybe it's not best to wonder these things. Comparing herself to Peter can only make the situation worse. So instead, she finishes the rest of her jerky, chewing particularly loud to block out the muffled groans of the fornicating couple in the shower nearby. When she's finished, she sits up, continuing on with her routine.
"I'll go grab some towels. And clothes. Showers are all around; pick one. I'll be right back."
"I'll go with you," he suggests. "Keeps me from having to hear…well, you know." He pushes off his haunches to stand, as does she, and the bat is placed in her hands again. They walk together to the hollowed out lockers where regulation gray shirts, pants, and towels reside. Freckles selects the smallest set, while Peter opts for something that will fit his long frame - but it'll hang loosely due to his lack of muscle. They both gather towels, exchanging bashful glances, and set off in opposite directions of the showers. Freckles draws the curtains and strips quickly.
The smell of the medicinal soap doesn't deter her this time. It manages to remind her of Peter. She isn't sure why his memory is associated with pleasantries, especially when he pulled her into so much unnecessary drama, until the moaning of the couple becomes even louder. The bottle of shampoo slips from her fingertips, crashing to the floor. Roughly, she scrubs at her scalp with her fingernails, doing her best to wash away every unclean thought in her head. Instead, she focuses on mentally reprimanding the couple copulating in public. Sex has never been an option for Freckles. She's never even considered it. Two people being so reckless as to run the risk of pregnancy deserve all the heartache they get. She's hopeful it's a Ji Nu who has found herself a client. There are certain woman in The Spa who, by no fault of their own, cannot conceive. In the harsh realities of The Spa, carnal desires are a luxury mostly to the men - and their selected hired help.
The soapy froth dribbles down the drain as she rinses, and she can't help but notice there's considerably less blood this time. In fact, there wasn't much on Justine, come to think of it. On impulse, she retrieves the bat and scrubs her with ritualistic tendencies, the way Meryl would. Again, barely any blood. She must have been in that meat locker a while, possibly right after Raging. When she's done, she leans the bat against the wall and collapses onto the floor. Her hand snakes precariously close to her inner thigh as she allows her mind to wander momentarily, imagining what life would be like if Wormwood never happened.
She would be in college. Own a car. Have bills, maybe a boyfriend, and first world problems like where she lost her car keys or the garbage disposal in her dorm clogging. Her greatest adversary would be an outdated textbook - not her own anger. Her family would call to check in, and she'd ignore them because, hey, she was nineteen in college, and who had time for hour-long phone calls? There would be so much to do! Swimming. Hiking. Baking. Kissing. Oh, kissing...it's a perverse fantasy, she knows, to think what a pair of warm lips would feel like on hers.
But then Meryl flashes across the forefront of her mind, and she drops the fantasy immediately. She brings her hands to her chest and shakes her head. No. She now knew what it was like to kiss someone, and it hadn't been at all like her daydreams. It was detached. Hollow. It wasn't a terrible kiss, but it happened in her most vulnerable moment when she felt like she had hit her lowest low. And it was shared with Meryl: the only security she's had since she lost her family. He's her family now, and the kiss…she doesn't know what it means. She isn't sure if it's something good or bad, but she does know one thing: Meryl has developed stronger feelings for her. She doesn't know when it started and yet…it feels like it's been a long time coming. Looking back, this last year has been full of the new - new smiles, touches that linger a little longer than normal, unusually passive stares. All initiated by him, but none revoked by her.
This was her fault, wasn't it? She didn't pick up on the subtle cues in time to douse the flames of his desire. But how could she when she'd never experienced those types of moments before? She didn't even know he felt anything towards her in that way until he scooped her up in his arms and kissed her through her tears. Shocked, she didn't even fend him off. She had been so consumed in her guilt, any form of affection was welcoming. And there was a minuscule part of her that enjoyed it. Not necessarily the fact that it was Meryl, but it was the kiss itself which sent her body into a swirling vortex of instinctual need for physical contact. She remembers her fingers searching the scratchy stubble of his face and how his tongue felt against her own. Was all kissing so…desolate?
She doesn't want to think about it anymore, so she stands and turns the shower off. The moaning has finally stopped, and she's allowed to tear herself from her memories. Freckles pats herself down with the towel, dressing quickly. When she arrives at her laces, however, she takes her time, stripping and threading them with care. She gathers her old clothes, the towel, the bat, and draws back the curtains. Her heart skips a beat when Peter isn't immediately visible, but then she catches sight of him near the laundry shoot, depositing his yellow jumper (or what was left of it, anyway). She approaches him, and they both share a moment of appreciation for each other's clean appearance. He looks younger - and even more interesting.
"Better?" she asks.
"Oh. Of course. I love bathing in frigid water. I certainly didn't shrivel up an inch or two." He smirks, oozing sarcasm. "So, this Meryl. You're sure he'll come through?" He glances anxiously at the door separating them from Manuel.
Freckles deposits her old clothes in the shoot, nodding. "Yeah. I don't think there's nothing he wouldn't do for me." Peter cringes at her purposeful misuse of grammar, but he picks his battles wisely, choosing not to comment on it. "Although," she adds as an afterthought, "the Council isn't going to be pleased with him. He attacked a Dandy and threatened a bunch of Spa civilians."
"What's 'the Council'?"
"Diggs didn't tell you?"
"I sort of Raged out before given the opportunity."
"They're the elected officials who 'keep the peace' throughout The Spa," she explains, double checking her shoelaces. "The Dandies have their own punishment system, but they don't care much about humans attacking other humans. So, The Council helps regulate consequences for those that disturb the peace."
"Like your friend, Meryl."
"What'll they do to him?" Peter asks, concerned.
Freckles shrugs. "Nothing too inhumane. Ban him from buying in the Bazaar. Maybe confine him to his bunker. They’re also the ones who delegate the jobs, so he could wind himself with something gross, like cleaning out toilets." She laughs at the thought.
"How often does he get in trouble with them?"
Her shoelaces secure, she rests Justine on her shoulder. “Honestly? A lot.” The pair exchange considerate smiles. “Well, um,” Freckles clears her throat, “come on then. Meet the family.”