Chapter 9: Astrid
After leaving the library for the second time, I go in search of Peter. I find him in the gym laughing at something Rena said. I walk up to him and tap him on the shoulder. He turns and his smile turns into something cocky.
“Can I talk to you for a second?” I ask.
“Sure.” he takes me by the arm and leads me to a small corner of the gym.
“What the hell did you tell my sister?”
“Nothing short of consequence. You deserved it. When you got that little Nobody to do the dirty work. Tried to kill me. Well it didn’t work.”
“How did you know it was a Nobody?” I ask, afraid that he’ll know it was Chris.
“So you admit it then. You were trying to kill me. And I could tell because of the stench. Anyways, I told your sister what she needed to hear. And if you try to tell her what actually happened, which was nothing, but if you do, I’ll kill her without hesitation. Do you understand me? Step out of line and I’ll kill her.”
“That’s…” he gives me a look. “Fine. Whatever, but know this won’t end well for you.” I snap.
“Oh, and I forgot to tell you, I’ve got somebody for you to see. Come with me.” He pulls me out of the doors and down the stairs. We enter the cafeteria and he leads me to a freezer. He opens the lock and inside sits empty shelves that used to be full of ice cream and frozen vegetables. One lumpy thing lays on one shelf. I step in and walk closer to the thing. I gasp when I realize it’s a person. I turn to Peter who looks at the body without guilt.
“Who is this?” I whisper.
“Brent. He was my second. Told him to get some food from the freezer and locked him up in here. He tried to kill me. Just remember that this could be you, but since I like you and I have leverage that I didn’t have on him, I won’t kill you. Yet.”
I turn back to the body and look at the frozen boy in front of me. My eyes fill with tears and I blink them away. Can’t show emotion. Can’t show emotion. I turn away from the body and walk out of the cafeteria. Nothing stops me from telling Iris everything, except for the blackmail. I have no one to talk to about anything. Not even Chris. I run to the locker with the opening and slam the door shut behind me. I run through the narrow walkway and reach the open room. I sit down on the bench as tears flood my eyes and spill over. I’ve never felt so hopeless. Never so powerless. Tears spill over and flow down my face like a river escaping a dam. Moans and sounds of agony fall from my mouth. I pull at the roots of my hair and scrape my nails on my arms. The pain inside makes me want to hurl and I do. I lean over and empty every small thing I was able to eat today. My stomach heaves until it’s cramping. I hear footsteps behind me and whirl around. Chris steps into the small patch of light the room offers. I want to throw myself in his arms and let him console me. Make me feel whole again, but I don’t. I stay back until Chris steps closer and holds out his arms. I run into them and take in a deep breath of his clean smell. I close my eyes as he leads me to the bench and holds me. As tears spill out of my eyes and fall on his t-shirt, he whispers comforting things in my ear. When my sobs have turned quiet and my tear streaked face has dried up, Chris sets me beside him and takes my hand in his.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“Peter. He blackmailed me. Told me if I told my sister that he’d stole our stuff he’d kill her. He thought that I set you up to kill him in that room. He threatened me and showed me a body in the freezer of his best friend. I couldn’t take it. I thought I had everything in control and then when I got here, everything just came out.”
“It’s probably because you don’t talk to anyone. You can’t store all this in your heart and mind and think that everything will disappear. It’ll just resurface.” he says.
“I know, but now my sister is on his side and thinks I gave all our stuff away because I told him that I actually tried to kill him.”
“But you didn’t. You didn’t even know that I was in there.”
“I know, but if he knew that you were there he’d kill you.”
“You didn’t tell him I was there?”
“No. I was afraid he’d kill you for trying to help me.”
“Well lets go tell him. I’d rather get blamed than you get blackmailed.”
“No.” I say and grab onto his sleeve. “Please. I can’t lose you, too.”
We sit in silence for a while. “Did you get your clothes? I dropped them off earlier.”
“Yeah. I was a little surprised you didn’t do it yourself, but I understand you had other things to take care of.” he says.
“Chris. I...nevermind.” I say, quickly.
“Nothing. Sorry.” I say. I can’t tell him what his group told me. He’d want to talk to them about allowing me in the group and I know I don’t belong.
“Do you want to head back? I’m sure your sister’s worried.” he says. I can’t tell him that she’s probably sleeping in the gym, peacefully. I nod and we head back through the tunnel. He takes my hand and kisses it as he tells me goodnight. He turns and heads down the stairs to the basement with a final, “If you need anything, come and get me.” When he disappears, I turn back and head back down the tunnel. With nowhere to go, I decide to spend the night in the small room with flowers. I lay down on the floor next to a pot of roses and drift off to sleep from exhaustion.
The next morning, my back aches from being on cold concrete and my head pounds from the crying I did yesterday. I take a deep breath and know I must make an appearance for my rounds. I walk out of the tunnel and shut the door behind me. It’s weird. Yesterday everything was clear and now I’m not sure what I should do. I jog down to the gym and almost fall over when I realize my body is very weak. Peter stops me on the way in and whispers in my ear, “We’ll fight later. I’ve got some things to take care of. I tell you when.” I step away from him and nod before stepping into the gym. I sign in and make my way to do my rounds around the school. I walk and as I walk I think about future plans. My head isn’t in the game as Red sneaks up on my and throws his arm around my shoulder. I jump and almost scream, but my breath catches when I realize who it is.
“Jeez, don’t do that to me. You scared the living daylights out of me.”
“Sorry. I called your name. You didn’t seem to hear me. Anyways, the boys and I are playing some more poker today, wanna join?”
“Sure. What time is it?” I ask.
He looks down at his watch and says, “11. Your shift should be almost over. Come on. Peter won’t mind.”
“Let me sign out and I’ll meet you there.” I say.
“See you then.” he says and jogs towards the stairs. I take my time walking back to the gym and signing out. I’m not really in the mood to hang out with anyone. I need to plan and see how I can get out of the blackmail that Peter has put me in. I countdown the past couple of weeks and realize my birthday is coming up closer and closer. Usually a birthday is something you should be happy about, but I dread mine. I can’t stand the days that pass. I feel like a bomb ticking away my life. A hand on my shoulder startles me. I turn and see Peter, Rena and Iris.
“Finished the rounds. Nothing new.” I say.
“Good. Have a nice day. Just remember to come back at night. You’re a part of our group. Iris was worried last night. We thought you got killed or something, but I reassured her that you were our best fighter. Nothing could kill you off.”
“Thanks, Peter. That means a lot.” I shiver and wait for him to say something. He glances at my sister with a sly look and holds her gaze. She stares at him until he looks away. I can’t tell what passes between them, but something emotional passes from my sister to him. “I’ll see you guys later.” I almost run out of the gymnasium as fast as I could. I meet Red, Tom and Jerry in their room. We play a couple of rounds before I end up winning most of the pot and thankfully get most of the food. I eat a small chocolate bar as we walk to the gym. The guys talk smack about how beginners luck usually works the first two times and how next time they’ll definitely beat me. Peter stands in the middle of the room with a bunch of the football team around him. He talks quietly with them until he hears the sound of the doors close. He looks up and sees me. He wraps up their discussion and they disperse. We take our things for rotations and begin walking around. As I step out of the gym alone, I see a figure standing close behind me. I whirl around and almost punch the guy in the nose, until I realize it’s Chris. I pull back at the last second.
“You can’t sneak up on me like that.” I say with a sigh. “And why the heck are you over here. Peter could see you and recognize you.”
“Moody today. Anyways, I’m over here because I saw something. You might want to come check it out.” He takes my hand in his and pulls me to a dark hallway. When I flip the switch of my flashlight, I see a white rectangular box next to the door attached to the wall. I walk up to it and skim my fingers over the cold metal surface.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Not sure. Someone must have installed it through the night. The only reason I knew about it is because I saw a flicker of light. I came over here and saw the box. Kinda weird, huh.”
“Yeah.” One button sits in the middle of the box with a dark screen around it. I press the button and it lights up. I gasp when I feel a prick in my finger. I pull my finger away and see a dot of blood. The screen lights up and I realize that the box has a purpose. This box tells us how much time we have. The number 21 stares up at me. I flinch and look away. This is torture. Being able to see how long you have to live.
“What’s wrong? What does that number mean?” Chris asks.
“It tells you how many days you have left to live. I turn 18 in 21 days.” I say, solemnly.
A look of realization crosses over Chris’s face as he looks at me. “I have to tell Peter about this. If he thinks I kept something from him, he’ll strip away what little power I hold over the guards or worse kill Iris.”
“Okay, I’ll go inform my group. Come find me when you’re done, okay?”
“Okay.” I say. Without saying anything else, I turn on my heel and rush to the gym. I rush through the doors and see Rena sitting on the stage examining her hair. I run up to her and ask where Peter is.
“He went to the boys locker room a couple minutes ago.” she says and continues looking at her hair. I run to the boys locker room and knock. There’s no way I want to run in on him getting dressed or taking a shower.
“Peter?” I hear a scuffle and almost open the door, but I remind myself that he could be naked.
“Hold on!” he yells. I tap my foot against the floor as I wait. What’s taking him so long? The door flies open and Peter steps out. “What’s up?”.
“I was doing my rounds and I came across something that hadn’t been there before.”
“What was it?” Peter asks, surprised.
“A box, but not just any box. It was a little box that tells you how many days you have left until you turn 18.”
He stares at me for a long time before asking me to take him to see it. He follows close behind me as I take him to the hallway. When we get there, I step back and watch him examine the box. He presses the button and steps back. When the screen glows he gasps in amazement.
“This is wonderful. Don’t tell anyone. I’ll call a mandatory meeting with all the group leaders. Go to the front office and ask The Skanks if you can use the intercom. Tell them I told you you could use it. Tell all main leaders to gather in the gym. Tell them...just tell them that. Then you are dismissed. If I need you, I’ll get your sister to come and get you.”
“Okay.” I say and run to the front office. I hate being the one who gets told what to do. I knock on the door and when someone opens it, they step back with a weird glance.
“Peter needs me to use the intercom. I have a mandatory meeting he wants all leaders to attend.” The girl steps back and lets me in. She leads me to an office and shows me the intercom. I nod and take the microphone in my hand. I press the button and hear my voice come to life throughout the school.
“Every group leader and second needs to report to the gym for a mandatory meeting. Again, all group leaders and seconds need to report to the gym for a mandatory meeting.” I click the button off and race out the door after saying thank you to the Skank. I run to the basement and stop on the last step. I’m not allowed here anymore. I call out Chris’s name and he appears behind me. I turn and ask him if we could sneak into the gym.
“I’m not allowed in there. He said I was dismissed.”
“It’s okay. I’ve got somewhere no one knows about. Follow me.” He takes me to a ladder outside of the gym. He points up to it and puts a finger to his lips. He starts climbing and gets to the top. I climb up after him and reach the top. He grabs my hands and pulls me up the rest of the way. I hear voices coming clearer through the room. I follow Chris to a landing in the middle of the gym. I follow him to the middle and listen to what’s happening, trying to catch up. I notice that they haven’t started yet because they’re waiting for The Dorks to show up. I lean closer to Chris and whisper in his ear, “How did you come across this place?”
He shrugs his shoulder and looks down with a look of concentration on his face. When the door opens, I look down and see two kids in glasses walk in.
“Know that we’re all here. I have some information that I’d like to share. Early this afternoon, it came to my attention that something has been placed into the school right under my nose. Don’t worry. I’m going to talk to The Guard, but now we need to talk about what I found.” I ball my fists up. He found nothing. Chris found it. Chris takes my hand in his and squeezes it. I bite my lip and continue listening. “A box has been placed on the 100 hall. And that box shows us the number of how many days we have left until we turn 18. We all know that everyone that has had a birthday and turned 18 has...well, died. I think this is a cruel joke from the government, but I would like to know what you would like to do. Should we destroy it or keep it so that anyone can come and count down the time they have left?”
“I think we should keep it. What’s the harm? If someone wants to know how many days they have left, what’s to stop them from looking at it themselves.” The Skank leader says.
Peter nods and holds up a finger. “1 for keeping it.”
“I say we get rid of it. There’s no need for everyone to freak out. We always knew we had a small amount of time in here anyway, it’s not going to change anything.” The Punk with black hair answers. He’s the leader, but doesn’t look any older than the youngest in the room.
Peter sticks up another finger on his other hand. On and on it goes until the group decides to keep it. “That’s it then. If you want, tell your group, then come to me and I’ll have a sign up sheet ready to go. They can sign up and we can put their numbers on it. That way we have a record as well.” Peter says. “In fact, I have the perfect person to put there. We’ll start first thing tomorrow morning.” After that, everyone leaves the room, whispering things in their wake. I glance over at Chris who looks like his heart is going to break. I raise my eyebrow and ask him if he’s okay. He turns and walks towards the ladder. I run after him and get on the ladder after him.