Chapter Seventeen: Declined
Most of the time, the world greets Freckles with sweat-stained sheets and the sounds of people Raging in their cells. Today as she comes to, she’s met with bright lights and muttering voices, altogether quieter than the bunkers. She finds herself on a white cotton linen, stripped down to her undergarments while a woman with plain features and a dirty blonde ponytail dabs a wet washcloth over Freckles’s collarbone. Instinctively, she reaches for her weapon. Her hands grazes the cool fabric of the sheets, and panic sets in.
Noticing Freckles’s frustration, the woman soothes, “You’re alright. Nothing a little TLC can’t cure.” She continues to smile as she brushes strands of matted hair out of the young woman’s face.
“The man in the elevator with you? He’s just over there.” The woman scoots her stool back to give Freckles a better view of the room; Peter rests on his cot at the end of the row as two volunteers check his pulse and mumble under their breaths. Blood soaks Peter’s sheets, but his shoulder is patched with clean gauze. His bare chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm, indicating he sleeps soundly.
Freckles releases a shaky sigh and tilts her head back against her pillow.
“Rough Rage?” the woman asks, idling for small chit-chat.
“Something like that,” Freckles replies.
“I don’t mean to pry, but there was an awful lot of... well, there’s no easy way to say it. There was a lot of stale blood on the both of you.”
Freckles swallows hard and swings her legs over the bed, sitting up. “You’re right. You shouldn’t pry.”
“I wouldn’t,” the woman warns. “You’re dehydrated. Here.” She offers a bottle of water.
“Thanks…” Her eyes cast over to Peter, and guilt swelters in her chest. She remembers his words and aims to make a change. “Got a name?”
“Thanks, Nancy.” Freckles grabs the bottle, unscrews the top, and chugs it back like a wild woman. There’s no time for manners; her throat burns with thirst. Soon, the bottle is gone, and she tosses it down beside her. “Got another?”
Nancy excuses herself to fetch Freckles another water, and it gives the girl time to gather her bearings. On the floor at the foot of her bed are her old clothes, drenched in black and brown, stinking to high heaven. The smell is nauseating, but she bites back the urge to puke. With wobbly arms, she reaches for the bedsheet and drapes it around her, covering up her bare torso and string-bean thighs. She wraps the sheet like a toga before standing. Nancy returns with a new bottle of water, places a hand on Freckles’s shoulder, and forces her to sit back down on the bed.
“I might look timid, darling, but I’m an old cow when it comes to bedrest.”
“Can I at least get some new clothes?”
“You can as soon as you rest some more. I dunno what you two went through, but taking a beat is the best advice I can give.”
“You a doctor?”
“In other words, you have no clue what you’re doing.” Exhausted but determined, Freckles stands up and strides over to the men around Peter’s bed. “How is he?”
One of them, a pudgier man with a thick mustache and receding hairline, eyes Freckles’s sheet attire up and down disapprovingly but chooses not to comment on it. They both know there are more pressing matters at hand than how she chose to dress, and she doubts he’d approve any better if she dropped the sheets and showed more skin. Then again, there are plenty of perves in this joint.
“We got the wood out,” the man says, his mustache waving to and fro as he speaks, “And we cauterized the wound. Assuming infection doesn’t take hold, he’ll be better in less than a week.”
The second man is tall with gaunty skin that stretches over his face like rubber pulled too tight. He raises a thick, black eyebrow and asks, “You know him?”
“What about his ankle?” she ignores his question.
The pudgy man nods. “We can’t know for certain, but I was an ER nurse. Hairline fracture, maybe, or a sprain. Either or - we won’t know until he heals more. Have to treat them the same way, in any case.”
“So he’s gonna make it.”
“Good.” She turns and heads toward the showers. “If he wakes up, tell him I said he’s still an asshat.”
The shower is sticky, and the blood that flows down the drain is familiar. In a way, subconsciously scrubbing the excess blood from her hair is comforting. It’s gross, damn it, but this is what she knows. What transpired on Floor Five, all those humans on the monitors, they all feel miles away and artificial. Cold water and murkish muck swizzling down the drain - now that she knows. What’s she gotten herself into with Peter? What havok have they unleashed by making such a startling discovery? Those humans…they were organized. The only other group of living people she knows with that much guts and willpower swipe the hands off their victims and wear them as trophies.
And to top it all off, Peter has a sister. A sister he’s never mentioned, never addressed, until today. What the actual fuck does he think he’s playing at?
An idea springs up like a dandelion in her head, distracting and weedy. She doesn’t know a thing about him. What other things could he be hiding from her? He always seemed so honest, but this proves there are mysteries still yet to unravel about the man who seemingly wears his heart on his sleeve for the world to pike.
After toweling and dressing, she emerges from the showers. Peter remains sleeping on his cot, a thick sheen of sweat built up on his temples.
Freckles retrieves her dagger from the edge of her cot and makes her way to him, pulling the gauze back to see his wound. Thick stitches, sewn with fishing line, contrasts the irritated skin pulled back together.
“He’s going to need herbs to prevent infection,” Nancy says to her. She pushes a small, folded paper into Freckles’s hand. “There’s a man called Bruce; he sells medicinal herbs for a fair price. You’ll need oregano -it’s a natural antibiotic. Bring it to me, and I’ll treat your friend.”
Nancy blinks, confused. “Because your friend might die without it.”
Freckles is baffled that someone in The Spa would be so kind as to offer their services for nothing in return. Her pride, molded from years of following Meryl’s lead, begs her to reject the woman, but she knows Peter can’t afford to be without the medicine.
“Thank you.” She accepts the paper. “I’ll be back soon.”
Her heart speeds up as she approaches the elevator, eyeing the Dandy guard with a sort of foreign respect. She wonders: does it know, somehow, that she took down two of its brethren not two hours ago? Can a Dandy feel anything for one of its fallen? Or are they like ants, continuing to fulfill their tasks without a hint of empathy while others were killed under the light of a magnifying glass?
The Dandy pays her no mind as she runs her hand over the scanner, waiting for the elevator to arrive. Once inside, she releases a shaky breath and selects her floor, already planning on splurging for peanuts because, hey - she just went through Hell and back!
After seeing bits of the outside, The Bazaar dims in comparison. What once was structured and full of life now feels convoluted and depressing. She’s experienced something so profound that seeing people move through their daily routines seems shallow. Hollow. What were they doing here? What good could any of this possibly do? Not a single person here knew a war had just broken out beneath their feet. Were there other families in that fight, just like Peter’s? How many of these people think their loved ones are dead as well, when they are really doing God-knew-what in the parking garage? Who would have thought there would be a parking garage?
“Hello, Freckles,” calls a cheery voice from a ways off; Gran waves a calloused hand in her direction. Maybe she knows where this Bruce guy is. It's worth a shot. Freckles gatheres around the booth, eyeing the new selection of weapons. In the corner of the booth stands Diggs, rubbing his chin and eyeing a rusted pair of brass knuckles.
“How much, again?”
“Fifty credits, same as the last three times you asked,” Gran answers him, rolling her eyes with an entertained gleam.
“Sure, but how much for me?”
“Oh, for you? Sixty credits. Unless you have something to trade up.”
“Lost my shiv down in Namaste. Couldn’t grab anything on the way out,” Diggs says, more to Freckles than to Gran. “You think you’d be interested in some information? I’ve got some juicy bits for ten credits.”
“Not interested,” Freckles folds her arms.
“Not even if it’s about Meryl?” he asks.
She pauses. What could he possibly have on Meryl? Maybe it’s nothing. Diggs is known for spouting out useless details to con people out of their credits. She decides to ignore it. “Gran, you know someone by the name of Bruce?”
“Can’t say I do,” Gran replies.
Diggs is quick to jump in. “Bruce? The one who works on the roof?”
“I dunno,” Freckles shrugs, crossing her arms. “He sells herbs.”
“For ten credits, I’ll take you to him.”
“It’s ten credits, Diggs. Why don’t you just pony up?”
“Ten credits is the difference between eating and having a weapon. I’d prefer to have both. Whaddaya say? For a pal?” She shoots him a look. “Acquaintance?”
Ten credits is a bit steep, but she’s sure, with her last kill down in Namaste, she can afford it. “Fine. If you throw in the information about Meryl, too.”
A cunning smirk breaches Diggs’s lips. “Now, that’s how you barter. Deal.”
They ask if they can use Gran’s scanner to transfer credits. She agrees. “Can’t say no if I’m making a profit from it, can I?” Freckles waves her hand over the scanner and selects the amount of credits. Diggs scans his hand to confirm, and the machine pends their request.
“What the fuck?”
They try again.
Freckles checks her credit number and nearly collapses under the weight of her anxiety. “Three credits? Is this someone’s idea of a sick joke?” She licks her dry lips and tries to put the puzzle together to see the picture. Of course. This is punishment for going to Floor Five. The Dandies must have taken away her credits the same way they took away Meryl’s for attacking one of their own the day Peter arrived at The Spa. But she’d done far more than Meryl, hadn’t she? She overrode access and discovered something she shouldn’t have. No doubt, Peter is in the same position. It takes one credit to ride the elevators, and she did that twice since. Once to get to Detox and once for The Bazaar. Five credits to her name now whittled to three.
“Looks like you’re up shit’s creek without a paddle,” says Diggs. “Didn’t know it was even possible to get down to three credits.”
“Shut up.” Freckles churns her options, settling her eyes on the hilted dagger on her hip. Peter needs medicinal herbs if he’s to make a full recovery. Yeah, it’s his own stupidity that got him a spear in the shoulder, but she feels responsible for him. It would serve him right. He isn’t yours to save. No one is. But she’s going to need to eat. And there’s nothing she can buy on three credits. You could always go to Meryl. No. She can’t. Not if she’s going to prove herself to him; prove she means what she says. She doesn’t need to owe him.
“How much?” she slams her dagger down on Gran’s display table.
Gran’s eyes trail over the weapon, pursing her lips. “This was a gift from Meryl, wasn’t it?” When she doesn’t receive a response, the older woman sighs and picks it up by the hilt, examining it with careful interest. “Sturdy. Wonderful condition. Newly sharpened…throw in that sheath, and I’d say, oh, sixty credits.”
“I’ll take it.”
“Are you su-”
“I said I’ll take it.” Freckles stares, determined. Gran nods and makes the exchange; now without a weapon but with sixty-three credits, Freckles turns her attention on Diggs. “Right. Let’s do this.”
The herbs are crushed and fed to Peter in his water; Nancy says he’ll make a full recovery, given time. Freckles is forced to leave him in Detox for overnight observation, so she grabs a cheap meal from the Cafeteria floor and takes it back to her bunker, contemplating what she will do with her remaining credits.
She knew it was stupid letting Peter take the lead - look where it’s gotten him: in a ward, facing infection and possibly death, all for a small slice of the outside world.
But it was beautiful, wasn’t it? Just seeing the ivy growing against the side of the building in those monitor screens planted a seed of hope within her heart. Those people...what were they thinking? What was the goal? Why attack this building? Was it a break out? A break in? What would happen to those captured by the Dandies? The ones that were unable to get away?
She expects to sit down and eat her bland bread and bean paste in peace when she arrives at her bunk: what she finds is Manuel, splayed wide stance on her bed and holding her dagger, the one she just sold not an hour ago, up to the fluorescents.
“That’s mine,” she snaps. “Give it back.”
“Hola, Pecas. S’nice to see you, too.”
She slams her tray down on the sink, nearly spilling her cup of water. “I said give it back.”
“Calm your tits -even if they are just mosquito bites. I came to talk. Nothin’ more. And to give you a gift.” Silence stretches between them, and the fierce look on Freckles’s face doesn’t relent. “A peace offering; saw you tradin’ it in The Bazaar. Pretty thing like you’s gotta keep herself protected.” He spins the hilt outward and offers it to her. Freckles waits. “Oh, come on. Whatchu’ think I’ma do? Shank you? You ain’t worth enough credits to piss in a bucket for.”
No, she isn’t. But does he know just how worthless she really is? Surely Diggs wouldn’t have sold her out… “Whatever that means.” Her fingers wrap around the handle of her dagger, but Manuel jerks his arm back suddenly, forcing her to stumble forward into his personal space. He gives a satisfied smirk and releases the blade into her custody.
“You and Meryl still on speakin’ terms?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I needa talk to him.”
“So, tell him yourself.”
“I ain’t got that kinda time to be searchin’ for one lonely fuck.”
“You have enough time to stalk me in my bunk,” she challenges.
“What can I say? Maybe I enjoy talkin’ to such a young, hot piece of ass. Makes me feel young again.” Manuel gives a long stretch across the bed like a dog staking his claim. “Or maybe I just know it’ll make your friend uneasy. See, Meryl and I got business. You tell him I wanna see him. ASAP. Do it, and I’ll start layin’ off your boy down in Detox.” His eyes flash dangerously at her. “Never thought I’d see the day you’d choose a boy toy over keepin’ yourself protected. Gotta say, the sap is givin’ me diabetes.”
“Peter’s not my boy toy.”
“And de-nial ain’t just a river in Egypt, sweet cheeks. I get it,” he smirks. “Meryl ain’t yer type. You like them intellectual skinny-dicks. But just remember, if you ever feel like a change of pace…” Manuel raises a suggestive eyebrow.
Resisting the urge to vomit, Freckles whispers, “Are we done here?”
“Sure thing. You remember what I said, yeah?” Manuel slides off the bed and strolls over to her tray of food, picking up her bean paste and dipping two fingers into it. He shoves them into his mouth suggestively and throws the ramekin of leftover paste down on the tray. “Miss you already, darlin’.” He draws the last word out with the same inflection Meryl would, giving her a sinister wink.