Chapter Twelve: Everybody Sins
"What did ya do?" Feet race across the floor.
"Irish, I-I-" Freckles drops the knife. It clatters to the floor.
"She came at me! She came at me. I didn't-"
"No. No, no, no…"
"I'm so sorry…"
"Give me ya shirt! I have ta stop the bleeding!"
A gurgle. Another set of footsteps.
"Stay with me, Fae."
"Reese…keep it together…"
"Shut up and give me ya shirt, Diggs!"
A firm hand rests on her shoulders. "You alright, Frecks?"
"I have to get out of here."
"Frecks! Hey! Slow down!"
"I'm so sorry…so sorry…God, I didn't…"
"You're goin' ta be alright, Fae. I'm here. Shh…"
"Let me go, Meryl!"
"Get ahold of yerself!"
"Irish, she's gone."
"No. She can't...stay with me. Please. No, no, no…"
"No…Sorry…I'm so sorry…"
Freckles is rudely awakened by the sound of her own choked sob, activating the stinging in her throat. Her head weights heavy like a brick, and her eyes sting as she forces them open. She's met with the soft glow of a lone fluorescent bulb attempting to illuminate the sparse hallway. Something soft cradles the back of her head, acting like a pillow. Slowly, she reaches up to wipe away the wetness on her cheeks.
"Shit," she mutters, realizing: she's been crying in her sleep again.
Startled, Freckles turns her head to find Peter leaned with his back against the wall, a thick book in his lap. He smiles down at her.
"Peter..." She registers the pillow under her head is actually his legs. He's using himself as a headrest to keep her comfortable while she sleeps.
He gives a lopsided grin, bends a page corner to mark his spot, and shuts his book with a thud. "Good sleep, Marcy? No. Macy? Hmm...Marigold."
Freckles feels like a fool for crying, but his humor isn't lost on her. She finds herself smiling, despite her embarrassment. "Not my name."
"If you told me, it would make it easier."
"Stubborn." He clicks his tongue. They stare at one another, pausing to reflect on the situation. He's aware this is more intimate than they've ever been with one another, just as she knows she's too sick to care. His legs are welcoming, and she stays rested against them, nodding once as if to say, This is fine. Thank you. Peter relaxes his shoulders and strums his knuckles atop the book cover. "You were out cold. Mind telling me why I found you curled up in front of Atonement?"
She tilts her head away from him to see Atonement's doors on the other side of the hallway, unopened. She ignores his question. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Half the night."
Panic spreads through her system. "Meryl…" She moves to sit up, but Peter reaches over and rests a bracing hand on her shoulder, encouraging her to stay put.
"Hey, now. You're really sick."
A strangled laugh escapes her throat. "Understatement of the century."
"You should rest."
"I've been doing an awful lot of that."
"Well, you should rest some more."
"You're not a doctor."
"And you're not Wolverine. Your body actually needs time to recover."
"I'd take being an X-Men over being a Rager any day."
Peter laughs. "Me too." His eyes are pools of warmth, spreading a heat through her system that has nothing to do with the fever. Has anyone ever made her feel like this before? Like she's been set on fire and left to burn? Why is the experience so pleasant?—His voice draws her concentration back around. "You um…you have nightmares often? Listen to me. I sound like I’m hitting you up at a bar."
"Who says I was having nightmares?"
"Typically, when someone cries in their sleep, it isn't due to happy dreams."
Silence stretches between them, and Freckles is struck numb. She isn't embarrassed, per say. Everyone cries; she knows it. Even Meryl has been known to shed a tear or two. It's just that she doesn't know Peter. He's someone new, and she's learned not to get attached to strangers. Still…he's more than that now, isn't he? 'Friend' might be pushing it, but she can trust him. She knows it in her bones.
"I get them too, sometimes," he tells her, staring down in his lap. His eyes are distant.
"No one's immune," she replies in an attempt for comfort.
"Even then," Peter rubs his thumb across the book cover. "I'm still afraid of the dark, you know."
"Yup," he nods, pensive. "It's not like I don't know it's irrational. The way the world works, you'd think a little bit of darkness would be welcoming, but it's not because I can't see. It's because I see too clearly. When I'm alone in the dark, I can hear myself think for the first time. I can't distract myself with books or conversations. When I'm asleep, there's plenty of darkness to remind me."
"I think there's a reason we're all afraid of the dark at some point in our lives. It's where our inner demons tread when the lights come on. I think we know they're there, watching us. Waiting." Peter catches her eyes. "We like to pretend they aren't there, but we know they are. And when we sleep, they find their way back to us."
"...What do your demons have to say?"
"That we can't change the past. No matter how hard we might want to. - You have any family in here?" He adds quickly, "Besides Meryl?"
Freckles shakes her head. "Gone."
"Mine, too," Peter shifts, and Freckles moves to lean up to give him space. He reaches out and gently pulls her closer to him so her head cradles closer in his lap, but not too close to be obscene. Still respectful, he leans forward and fixes the blanket tightly around her. "Look, you're a burrito." He shoots her a wink.
"How long have you been on your own?"
"Since the beginning."
"What happened to them?"
"Family RV trip. On our way to the Grand Canyon. Ever been?"
Freckles shakes her head.
"Yeah, neither have I. Never made it. It was right at the start of the Wormwood outbreak. We didn't have a TV, and we barely listened to the radio. Pops said it got in the way of 'family bonding.' Anyway, we had no idea there was even an outbreak until…" He shuts his eyes tight and pinches the bridge of his nose. It takes him several moments to collect his thoughts. "I remember waking up, disoriented, miles out in the woods. I don't know how I found my way back to the RV. Guess I must have known the way, instinctively. I did a lot of sleepwalking as a kid." He runs a large hand through his curls all the way to the back of his neck, where he rubs in gentle circles. "By the time I found them…"
The icy parameters of Freckles' heart thaws, just a little. "Peter…"
"It must have happened while they were all sleeping. My Mom. Pops. Little brother, Eli. I couldn't even recognize their faces. Just shotgun holes where they should have been." He sighs. "When I close my eyes, I can see them, like it's yesterday. Can't remember their voices. How they dressed. But I can remember the moment I discovered their lifeless bodies in that RV. It haunts me every time I sleep."
"I can't imagine…" Freckles' voice is soft. It's horrifying to think he discovered his family murdered. "Do you know who did it?"
"Hmm?" Peter stumbles over his words. "You mean, do I know who murdered my entire family in cold blood? Yeah. I do." He runs a hand down his face and clears his throat.
There's a temptation to ask if he sought revenge, but she's afraid to know the answer. Freckles thinks about her own sins and the lives she's taken—one, in particular. "Do you think you'll ever forgive the person that did it?"
I try," Peter whispers. "Every day." But the look on his face says otherwise. It leaves Freckles's heart in shreds to see him this way.
Knowing it's time to change the subject, she confesses, "I don't even know if my parents are alive. By the time I found my way home after the outbreak, they were gone."
"They just left you?" His face softens.
"They wouldn't do that. Something must have happened to them."
"So is that who you dream about? Your parents?"
"I…" She purses her lips. "No."
"But it has something to do with why you won't step inside Atonement." Peter notices Freckles has begun to shake again, and as he tucks her tighter in the blanket, he asks, "The chills?" She doesn't have the heart to tell him the illness has nothing to do with why she's shivering, so she nods meekly in reply. Peter gives a lopsided grin, guilting her further.
"Why do you go to Atonement?"
He shrugs. "I guess it's because I hope it makes up for the bad I've done."
"Writing names on pieces of colored paper won't make the dead come back," she whispers, feeling the hot burn of tears threaten her eyelids once again.
"I know. But it isn't for them, is it? It's for us. So we can learn to forgive ourselves for our transgressions." He gives an unassuming laugh and rubs the back of his head. "At least, that's what Irish keeps yammering on about."
"What if we're beyond forgiveness? What if the things we do are so bad, we can't forgive ourselves? What if we don't deserve it?"
There's a long stretch of silence between them as Peter mulls over her words. "We can't think that way."
"I killed someone," she blurts out, too sick to care if she's pouring out her deepest secrets on the floor. She's held this in for so long, and she needs to release this pent up frustration before she explodes. "And before you excuse it—yes, I know. We've all killed. But this wasn't out of Rage. This was something else." It's difficult to focus on any one thing, so she stares at the ceiling, allowing her eyes to drift out of focus. "Did Irish ever tell you he had a wife?"
"Um, yes," Peter nods. "Fae, right?"
"Fae. She was the best of us. The best of humanity, really. You remind me of her."
There's a cold laugh. "I don't think you know me well enough to make that assumption."
She ignores his humblism. "Fae had a way of lighting up a room when she walked in. And I…" She brings her shaky hands to her eye-line. "You shouldn't care about me. If you knew what was good for you, you'd stay as far away as you could." With a new found strength, she wills herself to sit upright, hacking as she does.
Peter scoots away from the wall and slowly reaches his hand out to her, like he's approaching a timid deer. When he's sure she won't spook, he wraps one arm, and then the other, around her shoulders, pulling her sideways into his chest. Being sick punctures her hard shell, and Freckles begins to cry. Thick, robust tears slip down her cheeks as she realizes: she hasn't cried in such a long time. Not like this. It's cathartic. She can feel all of her anger slough off like snakeskin, revealing the person she's hidden from the world for so long. She's just a girl looking for her place in the world. And, right now, the world feels pretty damn right in Peter's embrace.
"Tell me about it," he offers, whispering against her hair.
"It's better if you don't know."
"Freckles...please. Talk to me."
She sniffles into his shirt. "You called me Freckles."
He gives a faint laugh. "You'll never be able to prove it."
Freckles tucks her face into the collar of his shirt, inhaling the faint scent of medicinal soap but also something else. "Lemongrass."
"You smell like lemongrass. My dad grew it in the backyard garden."
"Oh. Yeah. I, sort of, work on the roof, now. Since Irish is on the Council, he pulled some strings…"
"Must be nice. No one in The Spa will hire me."
"I'm sure that isn't true…" he rubs soothing circles down her back with his knuckles. "You know, I might be able to pull some strings up there. Get you up on the roof for a little bit."
"Why are you being so nice?" She pries herself off his shirt, reluctantly meeting his gaze.
"It's hardly 'nice'. You saved my life, remember? I owe you one. The least I can do is return a favor every now and again. Besides, I've been trying to be your friend since day one. Kindness hasn't worked in my favor. Maybe bribery will."
"And you have no ulterior motives?"
"No. Should I?"
"Everyone does around here."
"I'm not everyone."
Chewing on her lower lip, Freckles makes a bold choice. "I killed Fae." She pauses. "I didn't want to. We were all sitting in the cafeteria…it was her birthday…It happened so fast. One moment, she was laughing, and the next-"
"-She attacked you." A pregnant silence fills the hallway, but Peter gives no hint of letting her go. Instead, he wipes the tears from her cheeks and piously searches her eyes. "Yes, I know."
"Irish told me."
A sickening pain swells in her gut. "Of course he did."
"He says it's why you won't get close to anyone anymore."
Utterly gobsmacked, Freckles loses all will to move. Her mouth becomes arid, and she closes her eyes in defeat. "Why are you still here, then?"
"That's a dumb question. I'm here because I care. I see you hurting. And you aren't the only one. Irish is in a lot of pain."
"No shit, Sherlock."
"He's hurting because you won't look at him. You won't talk to him. He's hurting because you've blocked him out, probably when he needs you the most."
"He doesn't need me. I'm the reason he's in pain."
"Damn it, Freckles," Peter grips her shoulders and pushes her upright. "He doesn't blame you. Now, you can either cry a pity party until you build a river you can never cross again, or you can wise up and realize blaming yourself is only hurting the people who care about you."
"You sound like Meryl."
"Well..." Peter's face scrunches up into one of annoyance. "For once, Meryl is right."
Her mouth falls open, and they stare dumbfounded into each other's eyes for half a moment before a laugh escapes Peter's throat.
"Wow," he raises both eyebrows. "Never thought I'd hear myself say that."
"That makes two of us."
"I mean it, though," Peter says, serious this time. "You can't keep avoiding Irish."
"What difference does it make to you?"
"Because he's my friend. I don't like to see my friends in pain. Any of my friends."
"Hey. We're friends. If me being here doesn't prove that, then you're just stubborn," Peter chides.
"Why do you want to be friends with me, knowing what I did?"
"Because you're a good person. People like that seem hard to come by around here."
Freckles feels the rush of exhaustion hit her like a heat wave in the summer time, and she yawns, leaning her forehead on Peter's shoulder. "I'm not a good person."
"Only someone with a good heart would hold themselves accountable. A bad person wouldn't own up to their mistakes. And believe me, you're not alone in making them. We all have."
"Saint Peter makes mistakes?"
"Ha. Ha. Ha." With that, Peter tucks her into his arm and rests his chin on the top of her head. Silence overtakes them as Freckles debates how she should approach the next subject at hand. It's nearly a relief when he beats her to it. "Do you want to rest here, or…?"
"What about Meryl?"
"He can handle one night without me." She inhales the scent of lemongrass again, cataloging its association with Peter. "Do you have somewhere to be?"
"Right now? Here's good by me."
She smiles into his shirt. Atonement's doors beckon her attention, but she'd much rather pretend it doesn't exist, instead focusing on Peter. It's funny, she thinks, as sleep beckons her again. All this time in The Spa, and she's never once let anyone hold her this way except for Meryl. She didn't know it was possible until now. All of her problems feel fleeting in lieu of the guilt she's felt for months. Talking about it—and having someone to listen…it's wonderful.
Gingerly, she replies, "Yeah. I think here's good for me, too."