Chapter Eleven: Humble Beginnings
Pain. There's so much pain. She wants to scream, to cry, to run, but all she can do is watch from the prison behind her eyes as her body continues its assault. Her arms fly out, trying their best to keep the monster at bay with a shard of glass from the broken window she's been thrown through. She never believed in the myth of Nian. When she was little, her mother would read her bedtime stories about the horrible beast who crawled out of his cave once a year to assault the young and vulnerable. Now, as she lays splayed on her back, she knows the fairy tale to be true. A mythology from her childhood could never look more daunting, yet here he stands above her, teeth bared, smoke flaring from his nostrils.
Wormwood's hold on her forces compliance from her body, so she's relieved when she drives the shard of glass into the monster's leg. Red gushes from the wound, but it isn't deep enough to make a difference; he barely registers it, though his teeth gnash together. Suddenly, a foot slams down against her chest, and her head smacks the concrete of the shopping center parking lot. Stars twinkle above her head like Christmas lights.
She hasn't just physically fallen. She's falling in on herself, hurling from the skies above like an angel being cast out of Heaven and into Hell—Hell, because in a moment, she will be released from her physical kidnapping, and the adrenaline will burn off, leaving her vulnerable. There's a click in her brain as the scenery around her dulls in color. The stars lose their shimmer. She can see it as plain as day, now; it isn't smoke that pours from the monster's nostrils—it's his breath in the freezing air. In fact, he's not a monster at all. He's a man. A daunting man soaked in sweat, blood, and dirt. His square face and strong jaw pair well with the obscene amount of muscles on his bulky frame. She can see his pupils wide as saucers, indicating the lights are out up top, same as everyone she's ever come across. Is anyone else forced to watch their misdoings, or is it simply her assigned personal and torturous Hell?
She's spent too much time in her head and not enough time planning an escape route. His face grimaces as he stares down at her, jaw clenched. She sees a flicker of something behind those thin iris rings—they're green, like her father's. He grabs her by the foot and yanks her forward, between the gap in his legs. He's too controlled. Too…aware of his actions. Has he come out of his Rage? No, his eyes are still all-pupil. He's fighting it.
Her eyes trail around for a new weapon, and she spots his bat on the ground, only feet from her reach. In a split second decision, she curls her body sideways and goes for it. But his arms are longer, and he grabs up the bat, hoisting it above his head. Panic seizes in her chest as she kicks her foot out and into his kneecap, staggering him off balance. It's just enough time to scramble backwards with her elbows, skinning her flesh against the concrete. Her head pounds, her body aches, but she hasn't time to comprehend it before the man regains his balance and sends the bat crashing down. She rolls to her side, and with luck, avoids the impact by inches. Crack. The bat makes contact with the asphalt. He draws it back above his head and sends the bat whizzing towards her skull again. But she's flexible—and quick. She tucks her face in her arms and rolls over to her side, just barely missing his swing a second time. In the time it takes him to reload his energy, she sends a heel into his groin, and he stumbles back, snarling in pain. Just when she thinks she has the advantage, he steps on her loosened shoelaces. They tighten under his weight, securing her sneakers to her ankles like signing her death warrant.
Die. She's going to die. No matter how much she struggles, she can't kick her shoe off to free herself—he hoists the bat back—his resolve to kill her is entirely stronger than her own resolve to live. Maybe she should let it happen. Maybe it will be over quick. Maybe she will finally be allowed to rest. This last year has been nothing but running and hunger and exhaustion. Maybe this is how she should go out. It's so lonely in this world…so lonely…her eyes strain with tears as she prepares for the blow.
But—over shoelaces? She's going to give up her will to live over some dollar-store shoelaces?
Like a rubber band wound too tight, he's too close to releasing. He'll snap at any moment, and then that will be it. She will cease to exist.
No. Not now. She's not ready to die yet!
Her youthful mind cannot comprehend a strategy—she isn't prepared. She only knows she doesn't want to die. So, she does the only thing she can think of; something instinctual takes over, and she casts her blood-soaked hands towards him and the stars above, looking for an answer to her silent prayer.
"WAIT!" she shouts, knowing it's hopeless.
The man jerks. She shuts her eyes, coming to terms with the inevitable. Has it happened already? Is she in purgatory? Was the blow so severe she never felt it? No. She can still smell the sweat stuck to her skin and can taste the copper in her mouth.
"You alright, kid?"
Her eyes pop open. He's still standing, bat above his head and teeth still clenched. But his eyes are no longer the daunting black from his oversized pupils; they're as green as the leaves in the trees, and he's staring at her with startling realization. His arms quiver, and he releases the bat. It topples to the parking lot pavement.
"Hey." He squats down next to her, looking over her bruised face and tattered clothing. Fear prickles her spine like a thousand needles, warning her she's too close to this stranger. She scoots back, wincing. Her ribs ache. Her ankle begs her not to move. So she endures, allowing the man to crouch beside her as he continues, "How the Hell did a little shrimp like yerself manage to take me on?" He laughs, falling back onto his hind end. "Am I losin' my mind? Yer a kid, right? Not one of them little people?"
Words topple out of her mouth as she sits upright, confused. "You're not going to hurt me?"
"Hurt you? Nah, don't think so." He raps along his skull with his knuckles like he's picking out a ripe watermelon. "I'm all here, now. Well, s'much as I can be." His face contorts, lips pulled back lips stretching in some sort of grimace - oh. He's attempting to smile. He's so daunting, it could be mistaken for a snarl if not for the warm twinkle in his eyes. "Name's Meryl."
"Hi." She wonders what to say. "Probably."
"You asked if you lost your mind. I said probably."
He snorts. "Ha, ha! Yer alright, kid." Meryl nods appreciatively, glancing over to his bat. "Yer lucky. Not many people meet Justice n' survive."
The sound of a motorcycle engine flares in the distance. Both cautiously perk their heads at the sound, but they're too exhausted to move just yet.
She gives a yawn that nearly engulfs her face. "Justice?"
"My bat." Reaching over, Meryl extends his arm and retrieves the hunk of wood, setting it in his lap. "Thirty-four inches of pure, brute force. She's a beaut, ain't she?"
She's pretty sure she can't share the same sentiments, seeing as how it was aimed at her head only moments ago. A shudder crawls down her spine, so she picks up the only part of his words she can focus on beneath the muck of her emotional compromise. "You named your bat?"
"Hell yeah. It's actually a funny story…you know anythin' ‘bout Batman?" She nods, and he smirks in response. It suits his face better instead of an actual smile. "Back where I'm from, they called me the 'Bat Man' on account of my oversized hunka' wood. And I ain't gettin' cocky. Big man like me's gotta carry a big stick if he wants to be heard." He holds the bat out, gripping it with confident hands and pretends to swing. "And Batman's gotta bring Justice."
"It's a stupid name," she blurts out.
Meryl cocks an eyebrow, seemingly irate at her comment but also impressed she would be so bold to challenge him. "That so?"
"That kind of name might have worked for before, but…what you do with it now," her eyes trail over the stained, dried blood on the head of the bat, "that isn't justice. You shouldn't call it that."
"Got a better name?"
She shakes her head.
He shrugs, though it's apparent her words have struck a chord within him. "I was gonna be somethin'. Was somethin', 'round these parts." He stares at Justice longingly. "Guess I ain't shit now."
"My dad said swearing is for losers."
"I ain't swear. I cussed. There's a difference. Swearin's like takin' the Lord's name in vain and all that sacrilegious shit. Cussin' - now them's just words." He pauses. "Yer dad…he…um…still kickin'?"
Her breath catches. She shakes her head.
Meryl nods, solemn. "Sorry to hear that." He glances past the parking lot to the road, scanning it for any signs of life. He squints his eyes, and he must decide it's safe because his attention turns back to her. "You all by yer lonesome, kid?"
Common sense whacks her upside the head and tells her to lie. "N-No. Um…my…" She opens her mouth to say something, to spin a web of lies that will surely save her life, but she can't bring herself to say the word: Mother. She hasn't said it in such a very long time and saying it out loud seems darn near impossible at the moment. "I…um... "
Meryl might have a slower drawl, but it doesn't reflect who he is truly is on the inside. He puts the pieces together and reaches over, overlapping a hand the size of her face onto her tiny one. "I got some food and water back at my camp. S'just me. I ain't gonna hurt chu’ if you wanna tag along and get a meal in you."
She looks at him skeptically, all stiff presence and narrow eyes. He narrows his in return, imitating her while he ponders, before smirking and offering out his bat to her. "You can keep her till you feel comfortable 'round me. Females like to travel in packs, right?" He slips the oversized wood into her hands. "Just don't think 'bout smacking me upside the head with it 'less I give you a reason. Or I'm gonna be Hella pissed off." He pushes up to stand, wincing as the pain in his leg finally surfaces. The motorcycle flares off in the distance again, solidifying the danger of staying in an open parking lot. She glances down to the strip of wood.
"You got a name, short stack?"
Timidly, she nods.
Meryl stares at her as she wonders what to say. "I'm..." The motorcycle whizzes down the road near them, screeching its engine, overlapping her voice, but he still manages to hear her.
He scrunches his face and shakes his head. "Yeah, I ain't gonna be able to pronounce that." His eyes scan over her face, noticing the smaller details. "Freckles alright with you?"
Freckles stirs in her bed, goosebumps grazing over her skin. There's a reason this Hell hole is named 'The Spa', but she's freezing down to her bones. Somewhere in the middle of the night, she's kicked all the covers off. Without warning, her body wretches forward, and she coughs. Her throat stings. Shit. She isn't getting sick, is she? She rubs her throat, feeling for lumps when she notices that her tonsils are, indeed, swollen. Great. Just what she fucking needs.
No matter how many times she attempts to close her eyes and let sleep consume her, she remains wide awake. Her bunker isn't one assigned with a window, so there is no way of telling what time of day it is, or even if the morning has come yet. She swings her legs over the edge of the bed, feels for her bottle of water, and downs the rest of it with a few forceful gulps. Her head pulses near her temples, but she ignores the discomfort as she stumbles out of bed, laces up her boots, and reaches for the sliding-barred door. Everyone is assigned a key for their bunker to lock themselves up in case of Rages. Freckles keeps hers tucked in her sock on most occasions. She fishes it out, unlocks her bunker, and steps out into the hallway. The rattling of her door disturbs Meryl in his sleep across the hall, and he rolls over on his side, towards her.
"Goin' somewhere?" he asks groggily, rubbing his face.
"Not feeling good."
"I think I'm sick."
Meryl sits upright, pulls himself out of bed, and unlocks his bunker door. "Lay down in here. I'll get you some soup."
"I can go get it myself," she shakes her head, which only adds to the pulsing pain. "Besides, I shouldn't be around you. I could get you sick, too."
"Like I care." He crosses his arms. "We ain't puttin' it to a vote, Frecks. Lay down. I'll lock up and be back."
Giving in, Freckles smiles faintly, steps inside his bunker, and crawls under the covers of his bed. His body heat still clings to the sheets and blanket, relaxing her like she's wrapped in one of his hugs. Already, she can tell sleep beckons her, and she's tempted to let it. There's a clink of keys scraping against metal as Meryl locks her inside and heads towards the elevators on a quest for soup. His footsteps bounce against the walls, dimming until they can't be heard at all. She snuggles her head into his pillow, inhaling the familiar scent. The dream tonight felt so real, and yet so much has changed since that fateful encounter.
Meryl has seen Freckles through broken bones, illnesses, pain, and depression. He was there when she went through the difficult (and embarrassing) acts of puberty, through her hormonal mood swings, through the need for new clothes to fit her changing body, and the differences in her personality as she became a woman. But there's always been one constant: Meryl has always been Meryl. Over the last six years, he hasn't changed at all; there's hardly a line of difference on his face. Aside from the small bits of peppering in his hair, he hasn't aged a day. The only difference in Meryl's personality is his ability to stand for change. He used to roll with the punches and keep his head up, but lately it seems like anything sets him off. He doesn't raise his voice to her, but she notices how withdrawn he's become ever since Peter's arrival a month ago. Especially since Peter hasn't respected the line Meryl drew in the sand after that night in The Lounge.
He approaches Freckles now; invites her to do things. She declines every time, not wanting to upset Meryl, but she can see the want for friendship in Peter's eyes the same way she wants it. It's so rare she finds anyone she connects with, but Meryl feels like an obstacle in her path, overbearingly protective even when he isn't around. It's become apparent to Freckles: Meryl feels threatened.
But why? She doesn't understand it. Simply because Peter is a man? It shouldn't make a difference. Friendship is just friendship. Freckles doesn't have time for romantic feelings. She's tried to make it perfectly clear to Meryl, but she knows why he won't accept it. If he stomachs she isn't looking for romance, he knows it will apply to him as well. And while he hasn't brought up the kiss since the day of Peter's arrival, she knows it still weighs heavy on his mind. To be honest, she's in the same boat.
Maybe it's the sickness bringing all of these thoughts to the table. She always overthinks when she's sick with nothing to do but to lay in bed and let the fever eat at her. No matter how much she wants to deny it, she has mixed feelings about laying in Meryl's bed, under his blankets, allowing him to care for her. If he acted the way he used to—like an older brother—she'd think nothing of it. As it is, she can't help but feel she's leading him on by allowing him to wait on her and tuck her in. When he gets back, she'll thank him and then tell him she'd rather sleep in her own bunk.
She shivers, snuggling deeper in the blankets. A large cough stings her throat, forcing her to choke on her own pain. Her throat aches. She doesn't want to be sick. Her eyes close, and she allows herself to drift back to sleep.
"Did you have a family? Before Wormwood?"
Freckles stares at the ceiling of the broken down SUV they've taken refuge in this evening, tucked against the window. She peers over the backseat at Meryl, who rests in the trunk space, arms tucked behind his head while he glances out the back pane. Rain comes down in sheets, pelting against the car like a swarm of furious wasps.
For two weeks, she's tagged along with the minor-league baseball prodigy, even though he could kill her at any moment. She doesn't really care at this point, as long as she's not alone anymore. She isn't sure why it's so important to her, but it might have something to do with the new freedom he's given her by offering her a new name. There's something powerful behind choosing one's identity, and being 'Freckles' is a lot easier than being the timid, fragile creature she was before. She doesn't want to be that way anymore, always looking for a rock to hide under. She wants to be strong—like him. She wants to hold her own. To be unbreakable.
Meryl scratches his bearded cheek, still staring at the rain-blotted windows. "Everyone's got family, Frecks."
"Tell me about them."
"What's the point? They're gone, anyhow." He isn't bitter. It's simply a fact they both know to be true.
She doesn't care. Anything is better than sitting in silence. "I wanna know. Did you have a wife? Or kids?"
Smirking, he peels his eyes away from the rain and over to her. "Nah. Married life never suited me. And kids? Even less."
Despite the fact that she now feels more like a burden than an equal, she pushes. "You never thought about it?"
"Nope." He shakes his head. "I probably shouldn't be tellin' you this, on account of you bein' a kid, but the world's gone to shit, so why sugarcoat it? - I got around, Frecks, if ya get my meanin'. I ain't never been a poster boy fer abstinence. Still, I never got any of 'em knocked up, and I kept my distance from all them feelin's and junk."
"Why?" She sits up, drawing her legs to her chest. "Didn't you ever want to fall in love?"
"Ha. Love." He puts the word in air quotes and snorts. "What d'you know about love, darlin'? Yer—well, damn, how old are you? I never asked."
"Thirteen," she tells him with a faint smile. "We met on my birthday. At least…I think it was my birthday." She's fairly sure it was, because she's been keeping track of the dates, but she always worries she's miscounted.
"Oh," he smirks. "Merry belated birthmus."
"Thanks." Freckles begins to bite at her nails, anxious. "And I don't know a lot about love, but my parents did. They always seemed happy."
"Maybe they were. Maybe it was all horse shit, and they were puttin' on to make you happy."
"Why would you say that?" She scowls at him.
"S'what adults do, Freckles. We lie. We're good at it—years of learnin' from our own fucked up parents. I ain't ever met a couple who actually were 'in love'. Just liked fuckin' and eatin' together. That's all a relationship is. Findin' someone you can stand to look at while you do the two."
She isn't even surprised by his words. These last two weeks have been an experience. Meryl says what's on his mind and doesn't care if it's appropriate or not. He says if she's going to live in this new world, she needs to face what's actually in it. It's a breath of fresh air; no one's ever been so honest around her before. She isn't sheltered by him. "And you never found someone like that? That you could do both with?"
"Lame?" He throws his head back, laughing. "It's a sad day on Earth when a kid tells you yer lame."
"You just haven't met the right girl, yet."
"Now yer gonna give me love advice?" Finally, Meryl sits upright, attempting to stretch, but his bulky frame doesn't allow it in the cramped space. He resembles a cat attempting to fit in a box three times too small. "No offense kid, but butt out. Stick to what you understand, alright? Like ponies and butterflies and unicorn shit."
Her temper flares. He doesn't need to be such a dick about it. "Thanks for the stereotype, Redneck." She crosses her arms.
His face turns serious, and he sighs. "I deserve that." He braces a foot on the window near her face, still attempting to stretch. "I just mean there ain't nothin' wrong with me just cause I never been 'in love' before. I reckon it's a pretty special thing, and I don't see me findin' it this lifetime, you get me?" He cocks his head from one side to the other, stretching the muscles in his neck. "Good on yer parents, though, if they found it." There's a long pause where he attempts to find his footing with her. "Tell me about 'em."
"Nah...Yer ponies and butterflies."
She sticks out her tongue—he does the same. They laugh. Meryl might be a grown man, but he still hasn't lost that youthful edge about him.
"What d'you want to know?"
"I dunno. The first thing that pops into yer head, I guess."
The car falls silent as she debates over what she should say. Thinking about her family without getting teary eyed isn't something she's mastered yet, and tonight is no different. She swipes at a few of tears, settling on something simple. "My dad loved to garden. My mom liked to cook." Freckles smiles. "She was good at it, too. I don't know how my dad wasn't the size of a blimp, the way he ate her cooking."
"I think all moms like to cook. Mine used to make the best damn apple cobbler in the state. Won a few metals fer it."
He kicks the back seat separating them, grinning. "She'd crawl out her grave right now if she heard you call her that. My mother was alota things: Skitzo, sick sense of humor, a member of the NRA...but cute was never on her bucket list."
"What about your dad?"
Thunder claps somewhere off in the distance, and Meryl clenches his jaw. "Not all us get fairy tales, Frecks."
Freckles can feel tension prickle the air like electricity, and she decides the topic of parents should stay off the table—for now. She doesn't want to run off the one person who seems to care about her existence by bringing his past back to haunt him. To lighten the mood, she climbs over the back seat and scoots up next to him, shoulder to shoulder. "I thought up a better name for your bat."
"Oh yeah?" He chuckles, relieved. "Alright. Lay it on me."
Meryl glances over at Justice leaned up against the back window. "You wanna name my bat Justine?"
"It's better than Justice. And it's close. You're only changing one letter. Besides…I think it fits her better."
"I had a teacher named Miss Justine. She wasn't particularly mean or ugly, but…I remember everyone in school was afraid of her. She just had this way of striking fear into kids' hearts when she entered a room, like Justice. " Freckles twiddles her fingers in her lap, pensive. "She was also the first life I ever took."
Meryl says nothing for a time, soaking in her words. For a moment, Freckles thinks she might have said too much, but then he reaches over and overlaps his hand on both of hers. "Alright, Frecks. Justine, it is."
"Yeah?" she smiles, her heart slamming away in her ribcage. There's a glint of hope in her eyes.
He grins back, nearly completing an actual smile. "Yeah."
"Soup's on." The familiar timbre of Meryl's voice brings her out of her dreams. Freckles turns over to find a warm bowl of vegetable broth in his hand. "Dream anythin' good?"
"Mhmm." Her vocal chords strain in agony, but she ignores it and sits upright as Meryl takes a seat next to her. He hands her the soup, and she dives right in, slurping it from the side of the bowl rather than using the spoon he's provided. She scarfs down the warm liquid until it's gone, not giving herself enough time to actually enjoy the flavor. When she's done, she wipes the back of her hand on her mouth, clears her throat, and rasps, "You remember when you let me name Justine?"
"O'course I do." He sounds fond of the memory.
"Why did you let me?"
"That's a stupid question. Why do I do anything?" He shifts carefully on the bed next to her, shoulder to shoulder before taking the bowl away and setting it on the floor. "Answer's simple. To make you happy."
"Why do I wanna make you happy?"
"Hell, I dunno. Back then, you were just a scrappy kid lookin' for somethin' to cling to. If lettin' you rename ol' Justine gave you a sense of hope, I didn't wanna take that away from you."
"I thought you didn't believe in hope."
He chuckles. "I don't, Freckles. But there's a little spitfire I know who does." He nudges her playfully.
Freckles doesn't nudge back. "I don't know if I do anymore."
Meryl frowns. "That don't sound like the Freckles I know."
"That's because I grew up." She rubs her eyes, fighting the fuzziness of her mind.
"You sure did," he laughs, gesturing to her chest. Freckles blushes and rams her elbow into his side, knocking the wind out of him.
"You shouldn't say things like that."
"What? The truth?"
"Like you notice those things."
"Hate to break it to you, but I'm a man. Gonna notice them things no matter what, darlin'."
"But not on me." Her anger flares. "God, Meryl! I'm like your sister, you know?"
He doesn't react at first, simply staring at her as she blushes bright pink and draws her gaze down to her chewed nails. "...But you ain't my sister, Freckles. We ain't related at all."
"But you're my family. I'm your family. Families don't - they don't do what we did."
There's a pause. "Then maybe we shouldn't be family."
His words are like a puncture to the last of the sanity she's clung to as of late. Freckles can feel a cold anger spread through her veins, inflicting pain into every nerve. Betrayal claws at her spine and yanks at her heartstrings. "I should go back to my bunk. Thanks for the soup."
"You don't have to go," he says quietly. "Stay. Rest."
She moves to leave, rolling over him to climb off the bed, but he catches her and settles a hand on her upper thigh, rendering her still. She stares down at his hand, her heart stammering away in her chest. "I wanna go."
"So go." He makes a point to keep his hand perfectly still as his eyes travel down her form. "I ain't keepin' you."
She realizes he's right. His hand might be on her, but he isn't holding her, and it doesn't prevent her from crawling the rest of the way off the bed. And she does want to go. But this fever must be messing with her head because she also enjoys the cooling touch of his hand. She's furious with herself that she likes it—Meryl can stir something primal in her that she's ignored up until this point. When she doesn't move, he shifts on the bed, sitting upright, staring at her with a clear resolve to speak his mind.
"See? Deny it all you want, but you feel this, too."
"I don't," she insists. "I just want things back the way they were."
"It don't work like that, darlin'." He leans closer. "I hate change, same as the rest of us. But, sometimes, shit happens. You pick up the pieces, rebuild, and move on." His hand leaves her thigh and reaches up, weaving a strand of her hair around his finger. "Look, maybe I shouldn't have kissed you after what happened-" Freckles scoffs, "-but I ain't sorry for doin' it. Only for my timin'. All I ever wanna do is chase yer demons away, Freckles. Seein' you cry ain't somethin' on my to-do list."
"Do you remember why I was crying, Meryl?"
He shrugs, uncomfortable. "People die."
"She was our friend. How can you sit there and act like it doesn't affect you?"
His face grows stern. "Cause it don't. I'll say it again. People die, Freckles. And as long as it ain't you or me, I'm right as rain. Now, you had no choice in doin' what you did. She came at you, plain as day. I don't blame you. The Spa don't blame you. Hell, even Irish-"
"-Well he should!" She pushes herself off his lap, swings her legs over the edge of the bed, and stands. "I deserve it! All of it!" Her legs wobble slightly, and her body begs to lay back down and forget it all until she's slept some more, but she can't allow whatever is going on between them to continue.
She leaves the bunker. Her head swims as her feet carry her to the elevators. She isn't thinking clearly; she just knows she has to get out of here. Her guilt is too strong. She coughs as she waves her hand over the scanner and the elevator door chimes. Freckles doesn't wait for the doors to open completely before she swings herself inside and presses the button. Hot tears roll down her cheeks. She feels like she's trapped in a sticky, hot bubble, and it's suffocating her. She just wants out. Wants to feel the wind on her face. Wants all the terrible memories to stop crashing against her like an ocean wave, reminding her of what she's lost.
Ding. Churn. The elevator doors open, and she steps out, wobble-kneed, hacking into her arm as she strains to cover her cough.
Her feet carry her across the empty hallway and to the thick, wooden doors separating her from the one place she's avoided for months. She brings her quivering hand up to Atonement's door, preparing to push it—but she can't bring herself to.
Freckles gives up, bracing her shoulder on it instead. "Fuck…" More tears find their way down her cheeks, and she slides down the door, to the floor. Her eyes close, but the tears still push their way through. "I'm sorry, Fae. I'm so sorry…"