Chapter Ten: Things Forgotten
Two weeks pass. Freckles finds herself in the cafeteria with Meryl this afternoon, eating cheap since they're both out a substantial amount of credits. Things have been better between the two. There's less bickering and more conversations. A lot of them fall back on Peter, who Meryl talks shit about any chance he gets. Freckles doesn't share the same sentiment as him, so she usually nods and listens without saying much. The scare with Manuel in Namaste has Meryl by her side every chance he gets, though their Rages have been uncharacteristically out of sync. Because of it, he's purchased Freckles a hunting dagger with a wooden hilt, 'just in case'. Even though he's strapped for his usual comfortability with credits, he still manages to gift her something she knows is expensive. "Call it an early birthday present," he'd said with a grin. "'Course, that don't mean yer not gettin' another one, come time."
The subject currently rests on a small fissure in Justine's frame. He won't tell her how it happened, and Meryl isn't sure what he wants to do about it. Justine has been his weapon of choice ever since she's known him. It's surprising the bat has lasted this long, but she can tell the damage still pokes holes in his, otherwise, pleasant demeanor.
"Maybe you can get Gran to take a look," she offers, reaching over and stealing a few gulps of water from his cup. "And if worse comes to worst, I hear Big Blue has one tucked away somewhere. You might be able to convince him to part with it." Big Blue is the go-to man when all hope seems lost. Pack of cigarettes? He's got them. Need an angel in the centerfold? He's got those, too. Big Blue says he's got connections with an unnamed Dandy in The Spa, claiming he can actually request things. Though, there's been plenty of times he hasn't come through, so Freckles assumes he's full of it. Still, it would be worth a shot.
As Meryl contemplates over Justine, Freckles spots a familiar set of brown curls in the lunch line grimacing as a hair-netted Dandy slops cream of corn onto his tray. His face sours as he slides down the line, waves his hand over a scanner at the end of the counter, and crosses the cafeteria to sit down with the one person Freckles wishes he wouldn't: Irish. Somehow, the two have managed to bond over the last week - after Irish broke up a particularly nasty fist fight between Peter and a few members of The Hands. Well, it wasn't really a fist fight. More like two men holding him down so Manuel could wail his fists into Peter's ribs. Manny's made it his mission to assault Peter whenever possible. She knows why he doesn't kill him; Peter's not worth enough credits - yet. But he still finds entertainment in harming him whenever possible. Diggs told her Irish banned Manuel from being sold food in the Bazaar for a month, and it's set a tension in the air so thick she could cut it with her new knife.
There's been a few times Peter and Freckles have exchanged glances. Once at the elevators, she stepped on as he stepped off. Once in the bazaar, he turned a corner and nearly ran smack dab into her. Once in detox, Freckles lingered at the water bottles while someone stitched up a large gash in Peter's shoulder. But they've made no efforts to seek each other out. It's not like they have any reason to. They're not friends.
Meryl says he doesn't trust a guy who always looks so cheerful in this prison. Freckles would agree with him, but something in her gut says that Peter is sincere. In the moments between moments, she's watched him. Like now, as he smiles warmly, laughing at one of Irish's jokes while biting into a dinner roll. His gaze drifts in her direction by chance, and their eyes catch. He nods in acknowledgment but then quickly turns his attention back to Irish.
"I gotta go," says Meryl, breaking her focus. He slides his tray over to Freckles. "Take care of this fer me."
"Where are you going?"
He rises to stand, Justine swung over his shoulder. "Where do ya think? Council's still givin' me Hell for savin' yer sorry ass." He smirks. "Think yer good without me for a few?" Freckles nods and watches Meryl walk away. As he passes Peter, the head of his bat smacks the younger man in the back of the head. "Sorry there, Petie-Pie."
"It's Peter," the brunette grumbles, but Meryl ignores him, taking long strides to the elevator. When he's out of sight, she can hear Irish saying, "Don't let him get ta ya. He's got a fierce bark, 'dat's for sure. But dats all it is." He rises to stand; to Freckles' horror, he walks over to her table, waving a friendly hand. "Allo, Frecks. Mind if I take a seat?"
She doesn't want to be impolite, especially after Irish went easy on Meryl. "Go ahead."
He slips comfortably onto the bench across from her and smiles. "How are ya doing?"
"Still haven't seen ya in Atonement."
His smile lessens. "I don't blame ya, you know."
Blame. It doesn't matter if he doesn't blame her, she blames herself. She stacks Meryl's tray on top of hers, preparing to leave, when Peter steps up to the table, next to Irish. Freckles feels suffocated as she stands, the tightening in her chest growing worse with each ticking second. She's unsure whether turning and leaving will alleviate it. A part of her wants to talk to Peter, since Meryl isn't around. Irish notices the silence between the two and decidedly breaks the ice.
"Peter tells me ya two know each other."
"We've met," she replies, cordial.
"Hi," Peter says, rubbing the back of his neck.
Their eyes meet again. "Hi."
"Er… we were just on our way to Atonement...if you wanted to join us."
Freckles stares wondrously at Peter. Has Irish not told him of her sins? He mustn't have, or Peter wouldn't ask such an idiotic question. "I don't think that's a good idea," she tells him with an even expression.
"Right." Peter ducks his head down, agitated. "Wouldn't want to piss off the Jolly Green Giant."
She has no words to rebuttal him. She can't admit to him her apprehensions for joining them do not stem from Peter, but rather her crushing guilt to Irish. She knows her wrongs. She doesn't need to relive them. Barely able to contain the rush of adrenaline in her veins from frustration, she laughs bitterly. Instead of keeping a cool head, she storms off, smacking shoulders with him as she goes. Peter is nearly knocked off balance; her slight frame packs a punch when she's angry. She slams her trays down on the dish conveyor belt and leaves. Freckles doesn't stop walking until she's at the elevators. She spends the rest of the day in her bunk, pretending the world isn't a shittier version of some romanticized dystopian novella.
Another three days pass. While she keeps running into Peter on numerous occasions, Meryl's presence has been practically sparse. The Council runs him ragged. He's excused himself too many times to count, and she finds the loneliness welcoming. After two weeks of him being up her ass, she's free to move as she pleases. She's offered to go with him a couple of times to help out, but he dismisses her each time, muttering something about his mess to clean up. "Don't look so hurt, Frecks. Why don't you do somethin' to take yer mind off things? Haven't been to The Lounge in a while. Maybe grab you some of that high-quality grass Diggs grows on the roof. I'll be back before you know it."
She wanders the bunker halls on their floor for the umpteenth time this week. Another peculiar thing been happening: her Rages have been fewer and farther between. She can't explain why, but it’s been a nice change of pace. In celebration, she's splurged a few credits on riding the elevators up and down, checking out The Spa in all of its haunting glory. Tonight, there's a community gathering for those non-Raging set up on level twenty tentatively named, 'The Lounge.' It's where people go to connect. Alongside community support groups that meet regularly, the floor offers board games, books, and music. There's even a black and white TV set up in the back.
The Lounge isn't Meryl's cup of tea; he doesn't do well in crowds, but Freckles has always been drawn to the arts. Even if it feels pointless at times. As she steps out of the elevators onto floor twenty, she notices the lounge is packed. Far off in the back, a football soars through the air. A few people read slam poetry around a circular table.
Only one Dandy guards the elevator tonight. Diggs leans up against the wall next to it, blowing puffs of smoke from his roach into the rotting corpse's face every so often. He doesn't even break eye contact with the Dandy as he offers out the joint to Freckles while she passes, asking, "You think they get high, Freckles?"
She plucks it between her thumb and forefinger, looking it over. "It's just weed, right? Nothing else?"
He gives an aloof grin, finally roaming his eyes over to her. "That was one time."
"Yeah, and Meryl still ran buck naked around the cafeteria singing Kumbaya." She tokes the foul-smelling joint and holds the smoke in as long as she can. It burns pretty, but she releases it much too soon for it to do anything worthwhile. As she goes for another toke Diggs clicks his tongue, distracting her.
"First one's free. Next one will cost you."
"You can have the rest of it if you'd like. Ten credits."
"Ha." She gives it back to him. "Always a business man, huh Diggle? No thanks. I spent more than that on elevator trips today."
He simply shrugs and takes another puff. "If you change your mind, you know where to find me - and Token."
Of course, he's nicknamed another Dandy. "They used to be human, you know."
"Used to being the key words."
Unwilling to discuss details with him, she wanders off in search of something to do. Her eyes search the crowd, but she's not sure what to do or where to go. It's been three years since her arrival, but she still doesn't have 'friends'. She has people she knows, like Diggs, and people she can go to when she needs something, like Gran, and people she used to confide in, like Irish...well, there had been one other. She doesn't like to think of it, though. Meryl is her only true friend, but even that doesn't count because he's family.
Freckles begins to wonder if this was a bad idea, but then she spots a familiar tuft of curly brown hair. Peter sits cross-legged on the floor with a board game. He's all alone, though he doesn't seem to mind; he's too transfixed on the game in front of him to notice much else. She inhales a nervous breath, deciding tonight she'll talk to him. She struts up, confidently, and can clearly see the game he plays; it's Mousetrap, her favorite game. A tingle runs down her neck, and for a moment she's cautious, mistaking it for Rage. Instead, it settles into her bones as excitement builds within her. She opens up her mouth to greet him. "You're doing it wrong."
His gaze stays fixed on the board as he replies, "Strategy takes time. It's about making the other opponent believe you're doing something one way, when in fact," he rolls the dice and moves a colored mouse along the board, "you're doing the opposite."
"But you're playing against yourself. Doesn't that defeat the purpose?" She takes a seat across the board from him, snatching up the dice. Peter's eyes finally drift up to her, and he raises an eyebrow.
"Don't have much better to do."
There's a mocking wince as Peter chuckles. "God, your grammar makes me want to jam my ears with sharpened pencils. - Aren't you afraid your bodyguard will come in and go 'Hulk smash' on us?"
Freckles laughs. "Meryl hates The Lounge. We're perfectly safe." She takes a good, long look at him, noticing the darkened skin around his eye as well as his puffy eyelid. "Manny do that to you?"
He shrugs. "Something like that." It's obvious he doesn't want to talk about it, so she doesn't push the matter further.
They continue to play the game, and she tries a new approach to conversation. "You and Irish seem pretty chummy. Bromance of the century blossoming?"
Peter rolls the dice and lands on a build square. He attaches a piece to the trap he's already halfway constructed. Taking a cardboard piece of cheese, he replies, "One of the only decent people around this place, aside from present company, of course."
Freckles can feel her cheeks flush with warmth. "You don't know me."
"I know enough. You're not like the others around here; you're not settled. I've been trying to wrap my head around why you associate yourself with someone like Meryl."
Her eyes squint, unamused. "What's wrong with Meryl?"
"What isn't wrong with him?" he smirks, watching her move her game piece. "Aside from his obvious moral depravities, he's a compensator. He likes to talk a big game."
"Yeah, sounds like Meryl," she laughs, almost feeling guilty. Almost.
"How long have you been together? I mean. Not been together. Just…been together."
"Going on six years."
"That's a long time."
"He found me starving on the side of the road. Almost bashed my head in. But he took me in. Kept me safe. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be…It's how we managed to bond-" Peter snorts, and she scowls, continuing, "It's actually nice, knowing you won't kill someone." She notices the way he shakes. "Haven't you had anyone like that?"
"I've been alone most of my life since the Wormwood outbreak."
"Must've gotten lonely."
Slowly, they smile at one another.
"What's your name?" As he asks, Peter scoots closer to the board - to her.
She rolls her eyes. "Freckles."
"Your real name."
Shaking her head, she replies, "Nope."
He shrugs. "Fine. I'll just have to guess it, then." He taps his finger to his chin. "Start with the A's? Abigail."
She makes a face. "Ew."
"Hmm...April? No. Amy? Aubrey? Alice? Ooh, I like Alice." He thinks about it. "No, you don't look like an Alice."
"That's because I'm not. My name is Freckles." She rolls the dice, moves her mouse, and lands on a build square. "You're going to lose."
"Why do you say that, Audrey? - Ack, no. Just saying it out loud…doesn't suit you."
"None of them do. And you're not using any strategy in this game."
"Of course I am. Besides, half of it is about the luck of the dice. B's then. Betty? Bilbo? Beatrice?...The B's are even worse than the A's."
Freckles snorts a laugh into her shoulder. "You'll never be able to guess my name, anyway."
"Perhaps. But I'm going to sure as Hell try...Brandy?"
She shakes her head.
"Bubbles?" He smiles.
Freckles rolls the dice and builds another section of the mouse trap.
"I hate it here," Peter says suddenly.
Her eyes stay rested on the gameboard. "Join the club."
"That's just it. I can't. I don't understand how you've lived this way for so long."
"We do it because we have to. There's no way out. But The Spa provides. We have food. Shelter. A roof over our heads-"
"-and a collar around your throat."
"Only if you let it eat at you." She asks a question that's been ebbing at her inside since his arrival. "What's it like out there?" She glances up, towards the windows, where moonbeams refract through the glass.
"Green. Itchy." He shrugs. "But I'd take the itchy for the green any day."
"What it feels like to touch grass. Or a stream. Or a tree." She flexes her hand. "There are times when I have these dreams about it. And they feel so real, but…then I wake up, and the feeling is gone. I can't remember."
Peter is quiet for a time. "No one should forget things like that." He rolls the dice, moves his piece. "I want out."
"You and everyone else."
"Do they, though? Everyone seems so complacent. It's as if they've given up hope of ever seeing the outside world again." He finishes the final touches on the mousetrap the next turn, and they both remain silent as she rolls her dice and lands directly beneath it. Of course. Peter is excited as he turns the crank on the plastic pieces and starts off the trap. Much to Freckles' amusement, the last piece he added doesn't quite sync up - the trap fails.
"Looks like you aren't as lucky as you think," she says with a smirk, sticking her tongue out at him childishly. He laughs, shaking his head.
"Guess not." His hand twitches, nearly knocking over the plastic trap. There's a daunting silence between them as Peter gazes down at his hand. Waiting. Just when it looks like he might be in the clear, it spasms again. He frowns, glancing in the direction of the elevators. "Gotta go," he mutters, standing. "Um…maybe we could…do this again sometime." After another twitch of his hands, he sighs miserably. "See you…Beyoncè?"
She rolls her eyes.
"Worth a shot. Later, Barbie!"
"Not my name!"
"Don't care!" Peter takes off at a quick jog towards the elevators, shaking his head. His Rage is coming, but he makes it in time. Through the gap in the door, she can see him mouthing something.
Despite going down into the pits of Hell, he sends her a wink before the doors shut completely.
Freckles watches the elevators for some time as something new stirs in her chest...a sense of optimism she hasn't felt in years. Something about the Name Game makes her giddy with anticipation to see him again. He'll never guess it, but still…
She turns back to the mouse trap, fixes it, and sets it off. It works this time, trapping her mouse. "Luck my ass." She thinks about it. "Wait. Did he let me win?"