Chapter Seven: Hopes Too High
It's amazing to watch Peter work. He presents a small pocket knife from his pockets and tears a sleeve off his yellow jumper. Then, he begins to twist the material until he's made thick rope with knots at both ends. "Hold this for me." After handing the first one to Freckles, he repeats the process with the other sleeve. The two stand just a few feet from the two Ragers, who try desperately to figure out the elaborate design Peter developed - but since they're feeding off gut instincts and not logic, they don't think to go up and over. The bars are stacked together in smaller intervals closer to the end of the hall, no doubt to confuse Ragers and encourage them to give up.
"What are you making?" Freckles asks, interested in every detail. She takes a moment to analyze his arms; they're thin, athletic limbs made of lean muscle and not at all what she imagined. It isn't clear exactly what she thought they would look like in the first place, but she didn't know they would actually be defined in any capacity. But it makes sense. He had to move all this lumber, didn't he? By himself, no less. Ten minutes into their meeting, and he's already full of surprises.
"Oh, come on, now. Little southern bell like you should know what a hogtie is," he smirks. Being called a southern bell makes her uncomfortable, but she doesn't comment on it. Her accent didn't use to be this thick. It's another habit she's picked up from Meryl. Still, she pronounces words, unlike her box-tank counterpart.
"We're gonna tie them up?"
"We're going to make it harder for them to kill us." Peter glances up at the Ragers and then over to Freckles. "Why aren't they killing each other?"
Freckles is hesitant to answer. Doesn't he know? "They're bonded."
"Yeah. You know." She shifts, uncomfortable. This sort of topic isn't common amongst strangers. "Loyalty and whatnot."
A coldness filters into his face, and he stares at the floor. "There's no loyalties when it comes to Rage. It just happens. You can't stop from…" His voice trails off, and he clears his throat. "That's just a myth."
"It's real," she insists stubbornly.
"Ha. Yeah, right." There's bitterness in his tone. "You have someone like that, then? Someone you don't kill?"
Defensively, she snaps, "Yeah, I do." There's a moment between them where their eyes catch, and she notices the skepticism written in the lines around his eyes. He doesn't appear much older than her, but there's wisdom beyond his years glistening in his earth-toned irises. Freckles casts a finger at the ceiling. "Meryl." Her hand drops, and she runs it down the length of the bat, permanently stained with blood. "He's waiting on me."
"Is Meryl your boyfriend or something?"
She doesn't know how to respond; she can't even begin to imagine how to describe them anymore. Things used to be simple, but that was before…well, before it all became so complicated; before she cast her ultimate sin. "There's no time for boyfriends in a place like this," she replies definitively. "Meryl's family, and he's waiting for me."
"He's that big guy, right?" Peter struggles to recall. "The one with all the brooding glares and rippling muscle?"
Oh. Right. He was there when she started to Rage. Then, it dawns on her - "I'm sorry," she whispers, ignoring the screaming from the Ragers who beat against the framework. "That woman…" She remembers Diggs going in for a pulse.
"I didn't know her," Peter reassures her, moving to comfort but stopping himself at the last moment. He's taken Freckles's threats to heart and reinforces her command to keep his hands to himself. "I didn't know any of them, aside from the time we spent in the back of the truck. A bunch of dicks, if you ask me. And terrible at conversation."
"Did you see…is she…is she dead?"
"Not sure. I Raged out shortly after you did. Birds of a feather, I suppose. Not that we flocked down here. It was more like being thrown on our asses." He chuckles as if moments ago he wasn't arguing with her. "Ready?"
She nods. "What do we do?"
"One of us needs to climb the pipes and knock one of the Ragers out. It'll be easier to deal with one at a time. Then, we push the other into those poles there. The one on this side will tie the rope around their wrists and fasten them to the structure."
"What if it shakes loose?"
"Then they'll have to carry a pole around with them," he shrugs. "So, rock-paper-scissors for who gets to stay inside?"
The corner of Freckles's lip turns upward, and she raises a smug eyebrow. "Don't bother." Under her breath, she mutters, "Dan xiao gui."
"What did you just call me?"
"I said: you're a cowardly monster," she smirks. "Your idea is great, except…" With a flurry of actions, she storms forward, thrusts the tip of Justine between the pipes, and knocks the woman out cold. Her sheers fall through the slats, and Freckles kicks them in Peter's direction. "Why go to them when they can come to you?" Quickly, she climbs up and over the wall of poles and lands feet away from the male Rager. Instead of feeling dread, like she usually does, her chest feels light - energized, even. Knowing she isn't here to kill takes the pressure off of her, and she swings Justine with half her strength at the man's shoulder. His bat falls to the ground as he cries out; she rolls it behind her quickly with the heel of her foot. "Ready?"
Charging forward, she kicks all of her weight into her legs while holding the bat horizontally between both hands. She drives it into the Rager's neck, shoving him against the pole works. Peter is ready; he grabs the man's arms, yanking them through slats. He sets to work on creating a knot with his makeshift rope, tying it with exact precision. It's obvious: this is his bread and butter. In no time flat, he releases the rope and says, "Let him go."
Peter is a stranger Freckles has known for less than half an hour, and yet she senses something within him she knows she shouldn't: trust. The world belongs to the Dandies now. Humans are the wild animals, caged and forced to perform. Betraying each other on basic instinct to live another day is as common as the cold or athlete's foot. Putting her faith, her trust, in anyone feels dangerous. The only one she truly trusts in this world is Meryl, but even that is wilting.
So when she backs away and releases the bat from the Rager's throat, it's defining. Her eyes should be on the Rager, preparing for an attack, but they only rest on Peter - on the innocent glint in his eye and relieved smile he wears.
"Alright," he sounds quite chipper as he picks up the hedge sheers, tosses them over the pole along with the sweater rope, and climbs over. He lands on his two feet with a hard thud and stumbles forward, far less graceful than her. "Now her." He looks down at the unconscious woman behind them and ponders. "What to do with her…"
"Set her up next to him."
"They'll kill each other."
"No. They won't." Reluctantly, Freckles leans Justine up against the wall, keeping her just within reach as she picks up the woman's ankle.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing? I'm moving her--Oof!" Freckles nearly falls over as the woman's shoe slips off her foot, only proving her point: shoelaces need to be tied tight.
"You're not supporting her head or her spine…Grab her by the arm, at least." Peter snatches the woman by one of her wrists, and after a failed attempt to put the woman's shoe back on, Freckles goes over and grabs the other one. Together, they drag her and lean her up against the poles, tying one of her hands to a metal plank. "So she can get them out once they come to," he explains, reacting to Freckles' inquisitive glare. "Come on. Let's go."
She doesn't need to be told twice, grabbing her scrap of wood with tender care. To her surprise, Peter pushes the hedge clippers close to the couple, but just out of reach.
"Take it," she tells him.
He shakes his head. "Too dangerous."
"Have you looked around? Namaste is a dangerous place."
"Yeah, I fail to see the humor in a name like that. Namaste."
"It isn't humor. It's irony."
Peter lets out an indignant snort. "Irony is offering points out for raging. Irony is letting the dead decide your life." He shakes his head. "Calling a place like this Namaste isn't irony. It's a bad joke. I won't take the shears. I'd rather die trying to save a life than live taking one."
Profound, she thinks. Profound and stupid. "You won't last a day in here, then." He laughs bitterly. She holds her bat out between them, pointing it at his face. "Think you're better than me or something? You must really take your name to heart."
"I'm no saint," he replies sharply. Once again, his mood shifts, this time with a serious edge. "Could…could we just focus on finding the exit?" He gestures towards the crossroads before them; two separate hallways fork left and right.
Freckles decides it isn't worth the debate. People like Peter never survive in a place like this. The holy rollers, the self-righteous, the do-gooders and chaste - they're always the first to go. It's a shame. He seems like a well-enough guy. A bit formal, but she doesn't get that ‘freak’ vibe most others give off.
"This way," she mutters, turning left. They stumble down a moldy-smelling corridor with hardly any lighting, but she's sure this is the way to the center. The less windows she sees, the more confident she is, especially when she can hear the distinct sound of metal clanking up ahead. She halts a few feet away from the edge of the hallway, noticing the fresh trail of blood across the floor, tapering off in the direction they need to go. She glances back at Peter, whose eyes are fixed on the blood, a severe crease between his brows. Both of their heads jerk forward at the sound of a gurgled scream for help.
"P-Please," a feminine voice mutters. Freckles tip-toes forward, peering around the corner, body alert and ready for an assault. What she finds makes her heart retreat into her stomach; a girl, no older than fifteen, clutches her side as crimson stains her hands. Above her stands a burly member of The Hands. She can tell by the severed digits hanging from his belt by bits of string. In his hands gleams a silver machete. Tattoos line the biceps of his arms: intricate designs of tribal swirls that tuck under his wife-beater and scale up his neck to the back of his shaved head.
Shit. They couldn't have picked a fucking worse hallway to try to find an exit.
"We need to go back," she whispers in her lowest timbre, shaking her head as she turns back towards Peter. His eyebrows blend together, and swiftly he pushes into Freckles's personal space and drifts his head around hers to squint beyond the junction. They're nearly chest to chest. She has to strain her head up to keep her nose from becoming buried in his sternum. She's never been this close to anyone that isn't Meryl, and her heart races wildly as Peter's slender frame acts as a metaphorical barrier between her and the rest of Namaste. For half a moment, she closes her eyes, inhaling the smell of his freshly cleaned jumper and medicinal soap. But he smells so good...wait, what? She snaps herself out of her thoughts, dazed that her hormones could take over in such a critical moment.
Peter brings his face back around, one hand leaning on the wall next to her face for support "Who's the muscle?"
Before she can answer, 'the muscle' speaks to the bloodied girl on Namaste's floor. "You beggin’ now, sweetie?" There's a deep chuckle and the sound of knuckles cracking. "Let's go over this again, real simple-like. You want across the bridge? You gotta pay the toll." There comes a soft, masculine sigh. "And, from where I'm standin', it don't sound like you have enough credits."
"I'll have it. I swear. I will. I'll…go kill some more."
"Mmm..how you gonna do that with your side all cut up?"
'Let's go,' Freckles mouths to Peter, but he shakes his head and keeps his hand on the wall, preventing her from moving.
Peter peeks past the corner again. Freckles shoves him in the chest with her shoulder, but it doesn't stop him. He swallows as a bead of sweat forms on his forehead. Freckles recognizes that look - it's the same one Meryl gives before driving his bat into someone's skull. She shoves him lightly in the stomach with Justine, startling him. His eyes find hers, and she glares. 'No.'
"Way I see it," the man says, "You got three options. Option one: we let you bleed out in the hallway, nice and slow…I got nothing better to do. " His voice exudes with entertainment. "Option two: I kill you, put you out of your misery, and chop off your hand right now." He laughs darkly.
Peter attempts to charge forward, almost giving them away, but Freckles grabs him by the scruff of his collar and yanks him back.
"Option three - and my personal favorite: we get you outta those clothes and you can pay me another way."
This time, Freckles can't stop the physical force that is Peter as he scrambles around the corner, revealing himself. "Option four: someone comes along and admonishes the patriarch."
Shit. Freckles shuts her eyes tight as fear smoothly sinks its claws into her like she's a leather sofa. She turns to leave, Justine clutched in her hand. She told him she'd cut her ties if he became dead weight - and nothing is heavier than a lifeless corpse beneath her feet. She knows she should go. Meryl waits for her, but he's also in her head, throwing out phrases like, Stop givin' a rat's ass about that S.O.B.' and, Yeh don't know him, ain't owe him nothin'.
But that glimmer in Peter's eyes, that innocence, resonates with her in a big way, and a hidden part of her wants to capture it and keep it safe. Keep him safe.
She barrels into view, bat drawn up, attempting her best kill-all sneer.
The gargantuan member of The Hands strokes his goatee thoughtfully, his lips turning from a sneer to a comfortable grin. "Well, looky what the cat dragged in." He tips an invisible hat and then opens his arms out as if to embrace her. "Freckles, in the flesh. How you fairin' today? This newbie with you?"
"Manuel," Freckles acknowledges, ignoring the taken aback look on Peter's face. "We don't want trouble. We just want to pass."
Manuel glances between Peter, Freckles, and the frail looking girl behind him before shaking his head. "Ah, see, 'fraid I can't do that. If you came at me nice, I woulda talked, but..." His shoulders shrug nonchalantly, and he points his blade at Peter. "Newbie thinks he's got some balls growing between his legs."
"We don't want any trouble, Manny...What's her fee?" Freckles offers, cocking her head toward the younger girl on the floor. "I'll double it."
Manuel bites down on his lower lip as if the offer sexually excites him. Maybe it does. "Shit, Frecks. You just got that kind of loot lying around?"
It's a risky move. Freckles hasn't let The Hands in on how much she makes from trading items in the Bazaar. Somehow, she's been off their radar for some time now. She's chalked it up to being Meryl's family, and considering the Hands seem to want him as one of their own, they don't dare piss him off. But he's not here, and it's all up in the air how Manuel will react to the news she's carrying more than her fair share of credits. Normally, she would never get involved with this kind of negotiation for someone's life - but normally, she doesn't have the world's most unuseful sidekick mucking up the government of NThe Spa.
"What's her fee?" she asks again, more adamantly this time. Manuel licks the apex of his dry lips and scans his eyes around the hall. Footsteps approach, and all eyes turn as a Rager bounds down the end of the hallway, brandishing a hammer. Peter startles, Freckles readies her bat, but Manuel simply grins ear-to-ear.
"Chicken shit," he says to Peter before turning on the spot, arching his arm back, and throwing his machete like a dart into the Rager's chest. There's a moment of sheer tension as the Rager falls to the floor in slow motion. "Oy, newbie. Go get my blade."
"You killed a man. In cold blood!" Peter exclaims, slack-jawed.
"Don't look that way to me. Looks like I took out a potential threat. Go. Get. My. Blade. Unless you want to be on the other end of it."
Peter glances to Freckles who motions with her chin over to the other end of the hall, encouraging him to listen. Begrudgingly, he stomps across the hall, carefully gliding past Manuel. He rolls the body over and flinches as he removes the blade lodged in its chest. His eyes blaze with furious energy as he stalks back and offers the machete to Manuel, hilt out.
"Thanks. You got a name?"
"Well, Peter - Welcome to Namaste. Rage on." He tilts his head to the side and leers over at Freckles. "Fifty credits for you. Another fifty for the girl. And seventy for the pretentious asswipe."
She calculates it up in her head. "I don't have that many."
"Shame. Guess you have to pick. I'm all for leaving the girl behind. Just a matter of time before she's Dandy material."
Freckles looks down at the ghostly looking girl, her hands now coated with scarlet and her breath shallow. It's an easy choice. Take Peter and get the Hell out of dodge. But one look into his dark, pleading eyes makes her question her morality. She promised Peter she would try not to kill anyone on this trip home. She doesn't believe in much, but Meryl taught her that her word is her bond. If she leaves the girl, she's offering her up for slaughter. Or worse.
"Meryl," she offers. "He'll give you the rest of the credits you need."
Manuel pauses to consider her offer and then roars with laughter. "I like the way your mind works, sunshine."
"But you have to take us to the elevators."
"Now why would I do that?"
"I mean," Freckles pauses, considering how best to approach the delicate situation, "...you could kill us. Take the credits." She rests her arms out, holding Justine loosely in her hand. "But you and I both know it's not as much. You want to get paid? Your best shot is getting us to Detox. We're not worth near as much dead as we are alive. But it's your call, Manny. I'm sure Meryl will be thrilled to hear you threatened my life."
"Are you a celebrity or something?" Peter mutters sarcastically.
"Nah. She's just a confident little bitch." Manuel taps his machete against the wall. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. "Better not be bullshittin’ me, Frecks. The Hands don't work for you. You work for The Hands."
"Just a business deal."
"So be it." The oversized hired-muscle smirks down to the sallow girl at his feet. "Looks like it's your lucky day, sweetie. - Hey, newbie. Grab the girl."
Peter approaches, scoops her up into his arms, and glares daggers at Manuel.
"Let's go. Nice and slow." Motioning for the others to follow, Manuel takes point and begins the task of guiding them through the tangled maze of hallways. Freckles begins to recognize the landscape but stays tucked behind Manuel, next to Peter's side, refusing to look at the broken girl he carries. They come across a set of Ragers, but Manuel makes quick work of them. As they lay on the floor, bleeding out from the cuts to their necks, he raises his machete and hacks off the left hand off each of them. With a grin only the devil could make, he tucks them into his back pockets and shoots Freckles a wink. "You gettin' as hot under the collar as I am, sweetie?"
She turns her head immediately, sickened. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices Peter isn't doing much better. If he weren't cradling a life in his hands, he would probably vomit. Two more hallways down, the elevators come into view. Two Dandies stand guard: one with a meat cleaver, and the other grasping onto a hunting dagger with its decaying fingers .
"Hey," Peter whispers down to the girl, "stay with us."
Her eyes hang heavy, and her breathing comes in jagged gasps. But she nods, reaching up to his cheek. "T-Thank you…"
He simply smiles. Smiles as if the world isn't dead already. Smiles as if he isn't surrounded by constant death. Smiles as if it's just him and her. There's a pang of jealousy in Freckle's soul. None of that bullshit romance drama; it's the fact that he can still smile like that, even when the world says he shouldn't.
This Peter...he's a wildcard. Something The Spa hasn't seen before. He's a beacon of hope, lighting up Namaste's kill floor like a sunbeam. It's infectious. For a moment, Freckles feels the corners of her mouth turn up. Her chest swells with pride. Through Peter, a life has been spared.
They step into the elevators with Manuel as a spark ignites in Freckles’s' soul.
The hand on Peter's cheek slips. His eyebrows turn up. There's a muffled sound: a gurgled gasp. Peter's saying something, nearly shouting. The hand falls down, collapsing on a breathless chest.
The spark douses immediately, and Freckles's chest turns cold. She should have known better than to trust that spark. Nothing ever changes in this place. She was foolish to think that one man could be anything other than that: a man. He's not a beacon of hope. He's just some gullible dickhead stuck in a world he doesn't belong in: a world full of animated corpses and humans who have lost all humanity.
Manuel chuckles, leaning back against the elevator wall. "Fucking newbs."