Chapter Six: Be Brave
"It's gonna be alright, Frecks. Don't you fret none." The rattling of a nearby engine pairs with the sound of tires on asphalt. Freckles peers through the thicket of bushes in the ravine by the side of the road, pressed against Meryl's side. Wedged between her fingers are brass knuckles, acquired two months ago off a Dandy they savagely beat into a pulp of decomposed tissue. Her stomach twists from even thinking about the smell it gave off as its insides spilled out, but it was all for the greater good. It's not like it was alive, anyway. They couldn't leave it alone once it discovered them. Where there’s one Dandy, there's sure to be more close by; they sense their own. Dandies are the reason why humans are on the run—not because of the Rage, but out of the fear of being caught. It's why she and Meryl hide now, waiting for the distant lights to approach and pass.
"What if they find us?" she whispers, blinking back thick tears. They've been the witness of too many captures as of late, always tucked away in a nook somewhere nearby as others are beaten savagely and stowed into the back of trucks with barbed wire blanketed on top. Humans are packed in tight like sardines, ready for transport to that giant skyscraper in the middle of St. Louis. The city isn't safe anymore, so the living stay on the outskirts, scrounging from house to house. It's been this way for three years now. Still, even though they've avoided capture this long, Freckles can always recognize the anxious crease in Meryl's brow when they come across a real threat. He wears the expression now, fingers coiled around the handle of his bat.
The truck draws nearer, headlights gleaming onto the midnight-coloured pavement. The wind picks up, swaying the bushes they are tucked behind, rubbing the bristles against their faces. They don't dare move, peering through the thicket in anticipation. Freckles only hopes she doused the campfire flames quick enough for them to go unnoticed from a distance.
This was all her fault. She should have never begged him for the fire tonight. He told her it was too risky, but she threw such an angsty fit over being so fucking cold that he eventually caved. Meryl has always been that way: giving in to Freckles, even when she is such a little shit. But her teenage drama fest might have just cost them their freedom, and she finds the sudden urge to piss herself. A fleeting thought titters by over the forefront of her mind; she didn't use to cuss this much. She has Meryl to thank for it.
"But what if-"
"-Shh," he commands, and she falls silent as the truck comes into clear view. It's worn and rusty, probably a farmer's truck from a nearby abandoned ranch in the surrounding wilderness. There's a clicking as the engine purrs down the road. Freckles notes the automobile is in serious need of an oil change. She holds her breath and closes her eyes as the headlights blind her temporarily.
Averting her gaze down to clear her head, she sees it - the fingers on Meryl's free hand begin to twitch right near the joints, spasming his hands in a starburst pattern. With heavy eyes, he glances down to his hand and curses under his breath. They know the signs. Usually, they'd pull out the pair of cuffs and fasten one of them to a tree or car door. Now, no matter what they do to keep Meryl from attacking, he'll be loud enough for whoever is in that car to hear.
"Freckles," he whispers, falling to his knees next to her as he attempts to push the grip of the bat into her quivering hands. She shakes her head and refuses. No. She can't take his bat. That's his bat. "Cut it out. Listen to me. Goddammit, listen!" He wraps her hand around the bat as he overlaps his fingers over hers. The corner of his left eye twitches, but he ignores it. "I ain't got much time. Yer gonna have to be strong. Hear me? Strong."
"No. No, your bat. You won't have a weapon-" Freckles tries to reason with him as tears spill down her cheeks.
Meryl smirks, leans forward, and wraps his free hand around the back of her head. There, he pulls her forward and leaves a whisker-poking kiss to her forehead. "They ain't gonna have you." Freckles's entire body shakes. As his lips leave her skin, she knows this is goodbye. He hasn't said it, and he doesn't need to. There's a chokehold over her heart as terror grips tight. She reaches out and grabs the front of his shirt, trying to stop him from leaving; but anywhere Meryl wants to go, he'll damn well go. His smirk never falters as he yanks away from her grasp and closes his eyes, pushing himself up to stand. She can tell it takes everything in him not to come undone right here and now. He's trying his best to keep it together for her, and her resolve to remain quiet is cut clean in two.
But she doesn't say a word; he wouldn't want her to. So, she stays silent, even as he pushes through the brush and climbs the ravine towards the road. She bites her tongue when the tires screech to a halt and the headlights shine directly into his face. She watches him stretch leisurely, preparing to let the Rage consume him. The doors to the truck swing open as the cab light flips on. Freckles's fears are confirmed; two Dandies step out of the car. One has long hair down to its waist, falling out in patches, and carries a butterfly knife. The other's face is nearly rotted entirely with maggots, but it somehow still knows where Meryl stands in the center of the road. In its bony hand is a catcher pole used on animals.
"Hoohah! Ain't y'all some ugly sons-a-bitches." Meryl cracks the joints in his neck as he tilts his head then places his fists up in a fighter's stance. "Come on!" If he was in his right mind, he'd be able to hold his own in the assault, but Wormwood is taking its control over his system at a dramatic rate. He swings his head from side to side, trying to shake it off. Without free will, his chances of forming a strategy are close to none. The wild look in his eye says that he's seconds away from Raging.
He inhales, arms tremoring.
Like a lion stalking back and forth before it pounces, Meryl paces the road, taking in the threats before him.
He exhales, and his body stills.
It happens in seconds; fists fly through the air, and Meryl barrels forward, towards the Dandy with the knife first. A growl erupts from his throat, and the behemoth-sized man takes it down with the sheer force of his body weight, sending both toppling to the road beneath them.
Freckles first instinct is to jump into the mix, but his words echo in her skull. Be strong. Be strong. Be strong!
The second Dandy steps forward, uncaring that its counterpart's head makes a crunch, crunch, crunch under Meryl's powerful fists. It attempts to wrap the catcher pole around his neck, but he grabs the rod and lunges the Dandy over his shoulder and onto its back. There's a second set of headlights not too far off, coming in at blazing speed. Another vehicle, a bright yellow van, stops just short of the first, and four more Dandies emerge. It doesn't take them long to subdue the giant with their weapons until he's simply an unconscious lump on the pavement.
Her eyes fill to the brim with tears as she watches Meryl lifted by expressionless Dandies into the back of the first truck. A layer of barbed wire fencing wraps around the bed, ensuring whoever is tucked away underneath has no chance of escape. There's a trickle of hysteria spreading through Freckle's psyche, but she keeps repeating Meryl's words. Be strong.
The tailgate of the truck slams shut. Be strong.
The Dandies glance around the abandoned road as if they sense her, creaking joints against bones. One clacks its teeth together as if trying to imitate speech. Another rattles its teeth in a similar fashion. Soon, all five Dandies make the same grinding, chattering sound. It's laughter, she realizes. They're celebrating their victory in the capture of another human. Freckles knows where they'll take him: to the obnoxious skyscraper twenty miles West of here.
Absentmindedly, she sniffles into the back of her hand. The chatter stops instantaneously, and the rotten-faced Dandy careens its head slowly in the direction of the bushes. Shit, now she's done it. Her eyes flicker down to the lifeline extended to her in the form of Justine the bat, debating if she should charge them full on. No, there's too many. She'd never make it. As the Dandies take a step in her direction, she crawls back to the base of a tree and contemplates her next move.
The stench of them approaching is enough to make her vomit, but it could also be due to the fact she's alone. Her stomach empties its contents, and she wipes her vomit-coated lips before pushing up onto her feet with Justine, finding the will to run into the forest behind her. Her legs shake. Her entire body is numb, exhausted, and in shock, but she won't give up.
Be brave. She has to be brave. For Meryl. For herself. If she dies here tonight, she'll go out knowing she wasn't a sniveling coward hiding in the brush, waiting for it.
Her legs carry her through the woods, over sticks and stones. 'Sticks and stones,' her mother used to say to her. Well, be that as it may, she'd rather have her entire body broken than be weak in the eyes of Meryl. So she runs, even as the Dandies pursue her, and all hope looks lost. She has to stay alive if she wants to save Meryl. Be brave.
Twack! A branch snaps her in the eye.
She's knocked off her balance, and she trips over her shoelace, down to the leafy floor.
A freshly turned Dandy is on her heels, carrying a bullwhip in its sallow hand. It raises its arm above her head, undead eyes glistening in the moonlight, preparing to strike.
Be brave! Freckles grips the bat with both hands, recalling the lessons Meryl taught her.
'Like a baby bird, sweetheart. Yeh gotta grip her like she's a baby bird—don't let her take flight, but don't choke her, neither.'
She curls her fingers, grips it just the right way, and swings. Justine connects with the Dandy's knee, and the joint snaps, collapsing it down on top of her. Freckles screams with a mixture of fear and disgust, dry heaving as she uses the bat as a levy and heaves the nasty body off of her before climbing on top and raring Justine above her head. "Be-"
The bat swings tirelessly into something firm and metal, and the sound seems to throw Freckles out of her memory and into reality—the Rage releases her, and she stumbles backward into darkness. It's the first time in a long time she's been able to will herself out of watching the horror unfold. Most of the time, her body doesn't allow her to think about anything else. Instead, it forces her to live out each murderous moment in real time. Sometimes, though, she finds her way back into her memory bank and plucks one for the road. This time, it's brought on by the thought of Justine clutched in her hand and the realization that she's alone. All alone, no Meryl, just like then.
She blinks once, twice, three times before it dawns on her that her eyes haven't focused. Or rather, maybe they are focused, but the room she stands in is pitch black. Fear tugs at her heartstrings, and she reaches her fingers out, trying to find the wall. It's a large enough room to where she can't find it immediately, and she fumbles forward, Meryl's bat nearly slipping from her fingertips. She scrambles to grab it, refusing to let it go even for a moment. This is her only connection to him, and she won't break his heart by losing it.
Instead, she extends the bat out, whispering, "Be brave." Vibrations travel up her arm when the wood comes in contact with something—the door. She can hear the scrape of metal, solidifying her hypothesis. She scrambles forward, tucking Justine between her knees so she can search for a door handle. To her dismay, there isn't one to be found. Shit. Did this latch from the outside? What kind of room was this? Her head searches this way and that, but it's a fruitless effort; with no light, there isn't any way to see where she’s ended up. How did she get here? She should have paid attention. If she hadn't gotten lost in her daydream, she would stand a greater chance of survival.
With shaky breaths, she taps lightly on the door—not too much noise, because anything loud will surely draw Ragers nearby to her location. But if she's trapped, she has to try to signal for someone—anyone who might not be Raging at this very moment. "H-Hello?" she asks, tapping on the door again. "Is…is anyone there?"
As a precaution, she darts her hands down and retrieves Justine, simultaneously stepping backward to hoist the bat into a swinging position. The door doesn't move, and no one makes a sound on the other side. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. What should she do? Should she knock louder? It sounds like an idiotic idea the moment it crosses her mind. But how else is she supposed to break free?
"Be brave," she tells herself again, lowering the bat momentarily to comb her fingers over her scalp. "Be brave. You have to get out of here. You're supposed to bring him his bat back. If you die, Meryl will never forgive you." And, indeed, he wouldn't. Meryl isn't the forgiving sort. If she dies, he'll find some way to bring her back just to kill her again for second guessing herself. That is, , if she didn't turn into a Dandy, first "Be brave." She steps forward and bangs on the door with the side of her fist. "Hello! Someone, help! I-I'm trapped!" She pounds on the door. "Hey!"
There's a hard slam from the other side, and she jumps back, startled.
"Fuck." She aims the bat high and backs up a fair distance until her back hits a cabinet. Glasses tinker and crash beside her, and she curses silently at her mistake. So much for attempting to be quiet. She stares at the door, or what she hopes is the door, and prepares herself for someone to come charging in.
But they don't.
The door swings open on its hinges, streaming a ray of fluorescent, flickering light into the dim—was this a meat locker? Freckles's eyes search all over the newly lit room, examining the poorly assembled metal shelving and conditioning units used to chill a walk-in freezer.
Carefully, she steps forward, hair stringing in her face and bat poised to crack open a skull or two. As she steps closer, her head throbs with pain. Migraines are common after coming down from bloodlust, but she doesn't have the time to deal. She's about to jump out of the frying pan and into the fryer, so the pain in her head can wait.
Almost comically, she leaps out of the meat locker and swings her bat aimlessly at open air. "Hiiiiiiya!" When she realizes no one's around, she discontinues her swinging, instead resting her eyes on the patchwork of diagonal poles spread out between the narrow hallway. It was as if God himself dropped them from the sky, landing them every which way. How peculiar…Freckles has seen a lot of things in Namaste, but the hallways are always debris free - aside from the bodies, of course. This was no accident; someone set these up to create a blockade. But where did they get all these poles? And why was it so damn quiet? Sure, there's screams far off in the distance, but no one around this empty corridor. Strange…
She uses the bat as an extension of her arm and taps the first pole: metal, firm. Another pole, slanted the opposite way, is made of pvc pipe and is more resilient. Yet another is scrap of wood, situated straight across from wall to wall with nails poking out at odd angles. There are bits of each that fortify the twenty-some-odd feet of hallway. Whoever did this was resourceful—and, presumably, strong enough to move these items quickly. Why has she never thought of something like this before? It makes sense…She's always gung-ho on finding the door, too preoccupied with the task at hand to realize the genius in fortifying herself after a Rage.
"Well," she sighs, looking around the hallway and gazing back to the door. "I guess they decided to bolt?" She glances down to Justine and shrugs. "Looks like it's just me and you, girl. What do you say? You miss Meryl yet?" She feels crazy talking to a scrap of shaped wood, but 'crazy' is a loose term these days. Freckles doubts anyone is born one hundred percent sane to begin with, and the apocalyptic world they all reside in doesn't help matters. If anything, talking to a bat is relatively normal compared to some of the nutjobs around here. "Fuck..." She scratches the back of her head thoughtfully. "I wish you were a dog. At least I'd be talking to something alive."
She turns towards the maze-work of poles and slips her foot between two, beginning the tedious process of finding the exit.
"I wouldn't do that."
Freckles whips her head back around, spooked by the low timbre of a stranger's voice somewhere behind her. She catches sight of long, nimble fingers coiled around edge of the metal door. Shit. Why didn't she check behind the door? She brings her foot back across the border and holds Justine in one hand, appearing submissive, yet she's anything but. Friend or foe, whoever is hiding is going to get a face full of White Ash wood if they even think about coming at her. In the last three years, she's taken a swing or two at The Hand and isn't afraid to repeat the action verbatim.
"Why not?" she asks, pushing her voice out to command attention. Her father used to call it her 'theater voice.'
"Not safe," the stranger replies.
Freckles tilts her head to the side. "Why don't you come out so I can see you?"
There's a wry laugh. "Because I don't trust you."
She can't help it; she laughs back. "Can't say I blame you." Glancing down at Justine, she adds, "The obstacle course - you build that?" She tries to emulate Meryl's gruff tone, but she's nowhere near as intimidating.
"I did," says the stranger, sounding amused.
"Impressive." She takes a step forward. "Look, I'm not big on assuming, so stop me if I'm wrong. You let me out of that room, yeah?"
She takes another step, pausing for effect. "Why?"
"Heard you muttering to yourself. Sounded like you were in your right mind. Though, I'll admit, talking to a bat…" His chuckle bounces off the walls, dispersing it in all directions. "That's one I haven't seen before."
"Yeah, well," she says, getting defensive, "Justine's put in the hours; she deserves a good conversation every once in awhile." She takes one more step towards the door. "You got a name?"
"I have a name, yes. Who taught you grammar? Yours is atrocious."
Her eyebrows draw together, and her eyes turn to slits. "Same could be said about your manners."
"I never claimed to have any." There is a pause. "Peter."
"Pffffft…" He fails at bridling his laughter. "Fre-Freckles? Please, tell me you were making a joke."
Heat washes over her - not out of rage, but out of embarrassment. Soon, her entire body flares with warmth, and her cheeks tint magenta. She's just about to open her mouth to sneer something awful when a tuft of shaggy brown curls peeks around the doorframe. Peter still laughs as he sidesteps and shows himself, one hand over his mouth as he struggles to contain his mirth. Freckles recognizes him immediately as the slender-framed newcomer from The Bazaar. If the oversized yellow jumper isn't a dead giveaway, his height is, as well as his striking nut-brown eyes. They're meditative. Plucky. After a failed attempt to suppress his sniggering, he removes his hand and reveals a sideways smirk.
"I thought you were afraid of me," she says, eyeing him over. He doesn't present a weapon, but that doesn't mean he won't know how to use his fists, so she keeps Justine handy.
Peter shrugs. "Hard to be daunted by someone with such a adorable name." His eyes trace over her body, no doubt sizing her up. She stands straighter and squares her shoulders; she doesn't want the first impression she gives off to be weak. His eyes stop for a moment below her neck, and a small blush crawls over his ears as he clears his throat. "Your name isn't Freckles."
"Oh? It says so on your birth certificate?"
The more Freckles stands in front of Peter, the more she wants to slug him in the face.
"Not like you could show it to me, anyway," he notes, rubbing his chin, then adds in a sober tone, "I'm not going to hurt you. Could you just..." His hand extends towards the bat. "...it's difficult to have a conversation with someone who appears as if she's debating on killing me."
He raises both eyebrows, momentarily surprised, before decidedly shrugging. "Well, at least you're honest about it." He raises both of his hands up and tucks them behind his head.
"Why the blockade?" Freckles asks, gesticulating to the poles.
"I thought it would be obvious," he smirks. "Diggs mentioned something about finding the elevator after a Rage, but I seem to be turned around. Outside, I can tell North from South, but in here-"
"-You get jumbled."
"Yes," he nods, enthused. "Exactly. I built this blockade to buy me time. I found those scraps tucked away in there," Peter nudges his head towards the door. "I was just about done removing them all when you came around the bend, screaming like a wild woman.” Freckles grips her bat tighter, a crease between her eyebrows. “-Not that I blame you. For someone so small, you sure can swing a bat."
Her grip on the bat loosens, the tension in her eyes fading as a hint of guilt emerges. "I hit you?"
"Here." He points to the back of his head. "I thought I was a goner, but you stood right in front of that door, and I just-" Peter kicks his foot. "-Boom. Right in there."
Freckles looks back to all of the lumber and pipes. "Why?"
"Why didn't you just kill me?" Her face turns sour, lips pursed. Confusion riddles her system like a virus, staying her breathing.
"Kill you?" Peter asks, confused. "You weren't in your right mind. I saw no reason in taking it that far."
"I would have," she says immediately and slowly raises Justine up between them, pressing the end of the bat into his sternum. Peter appears squeamish as she continues, "If things were turned the other way." Her eyes flicker up between Justine and Peter, meeting his gaze. "If you were Raging, and I wasn't, I wouldn't hesitate."
His throat contracts as he swallows - a nervous reaction, no doubt, to having a baseball bat aimed at him. "Look I-"
There's sudden shouting from the end of the hallway, mixed with grunts and the sound of shoes slapping the floor. Freckles spins on her heels, Justine in tow, ready for the sure-to-be Rager heading in their direction. Like clockwork, two snarling, angry figures emerge; a man and a woman. Freckles has seen them around the Bazaar but never cared to know their names. It's easier if she doesn't know them personally. The woman holds a pair of hedge shears, while the man swings a bat similar to Justine, but not as fine a quality. Their eyes connect with the pair at the end of the hall, registering potential kills.
The man beats his bat against the first thick, wooden plank separating them, but doesn't make a dent. The woman tries to cut through a pvc pipe, but the blades slide off the slick surface easily. She screams in frustration, beating the shears over the pipe.
"Easy," Peter whispers, gently placing his hands over Freckles's and lowers her arms down, inadvertently caging her with his arms in the process. "They can't get through. They're not calm enough to figure it out. Don't waste your energy."
"Get off me." Grumbling, she elbows him in the ribs and pushes him away. "I don't know you."
"I'm sorry. I was just trying to-"
"-You so much as lay a finger on me again, and it'll be the last thing you ever do."
Peter casts his hands out in front of him, palms up, surrendering. "You make your point clear." He chews on his lower lip, as if struggling to find words while staring into her eyes. "I'm not a creep. I promise."
Freckles contemplates his words, tucks them in her mind's back pocket, and decides she'll be the judge of that. Turning away from him, she starts towards the poles and begins to tuck herself through the obstacle course.
"Where are you going?" Peter calls out.
"But there are Ragers."
"Always going to be. Have to put them down."
"Put them - put them down? They're human!"
Halfway between a board and a metal beam, she pauses, turning her head to look back at Peter. "How'd you survive out there? Ragers rage. It's kill or be killed."
"Not where I'm standing. It's murder."
An icy chill racks down her spine, and Freckles grits her teeth. "Alright, Saint Peter." She pulls herself between the debris, halfway between the Ragers and Peter. "I'm about this close," she holds up her thumb and pointer finger millimeters apart, "from coming over there and letting Justine give you a makeover."
"You don't have to kill them," he pleads with her. His chocolate eyes glisten with an innocence that’s a foreign sight to her, and she has to avert her gaze to the floor to keep from becoming lost in their rare purity. "We can outmaneuver them. We're in our right minds. Please. Let me show you."
Freckles glances back over her shoulder at the Ragers. Another way has never been offered to her. Could there be another way?
"Please," he says again, voice heavy with concern, "I'll make you a deal. You show me the way out - I guarantee no one else dies at your hands getting us there." He sounds so confident…is it possible?
Justine trembles in her hands, reminding her to be brave. Bravery...could that mean taking a chance on Peter? She barely knows him, and she can already hear Meryl's voice ringing in her head, 'He ain't to be trusted, Frecks.' But Meryl isn't here. He's upstairs, in the Bazaar, no doubt taking shit for protecting her during her Rage. She needs to get to him.
"Alright, Peter." Freckles throws her pointer finger up into the air. "You get one chance to prove yourself. If I see you're full of shit, or I think you're dead weight, I cut my ties and run. Understand?"
Peter already moves to join her, contorting his long body between a set of poles as he grins ear-to-ear. "You're so clear, you shine like crystal."